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Chuck Schumer’s rise in Washington hasn’t loosened his grip on New York

“You’re gonna do great. Everyone likes you.”

Brisport’s swearing-in was the capper on yet another coup for New York’s rising progressives and Schumer, the establishment man, was there to cheer them on. He is bear-hugging the left these days, as chatter swirls of a potential primary challenge next year.

But Schumer’s embrace is also wider, more consuming. He is his own tent in New York and everyone and their friends are invited in. Can’t make it? He’ll come to yours. He knows the town and the town — every town in every county across the state — knows him.

At the podium, Schumer, face-to-livestreaming-camera, paid homage — to the community, to the organizers, and to “my colleague in the Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez!” This was a “great day,” Schumer said, “democracy in action.” His own ascent came to mind — the “awesome” feel of it. “Awe in the biblical sense. When the angels saw the face of God and trembled. Such a huge responsibility.”

Schumer elbow-bumped Brisport as he finished and walked back out of the frame. His famous flip phone was, for a few minutes, silent. Ocasio-Cortez eventually rose to speak and then, beaming, she administered the oath.

He’d be back in Washington soon, doing the job so many of his friends, allies and colleagues say he was born to do: Pushing the President’s “American Rescue Plan,” hashing out a power-sharing deal with Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, shepherding Biden’s Cabinet appointees, preparing for former President Donald Trump’s second Senate impeachment trial — and doing it all with no margin for error in a divided chamber.

In the background, creeping closer, is his own political future. Schumer is up for reelection next year. New York has become a launching pad for the insurgent left. Totems of the state Democratic establishment have been toppled in two consecutive cycles. Rumors that a young progressive might take a run at Schumer in 2022 ping-pong around lefty and media circles. Some people familiar with Ocasio-Cortez’s thinking say she’s considering it, that she hasn’t ruled it out.

But she and her team are being coy. No denials, no hints. Perhaps more notably, no moves — so far — to set the groundwork for a challenge.

The next few months could determine how real a threat — if any — Schumer faces from the progressive left next year, as he is charged with bringing home the votes to deliver on some of Biden’s most ambitious agenda items. First, the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief and stimulus package. Then another, larger bill focused on infrastructure. Democracy reform, an even stickier legislative wicket, could follow that — and the specter of a brewing intra-party clash over the fate of the filibuster hangs over it all.

The majority leader meets his moment

For now, though, the interests and ambitions of Schumer and his would-be Democratic rivals are in near-perfect alignment.

“We discussed many of the details of the bill that we have to put together over the next few weeks,” Schumer said after a Wednesday meeting with Biden and leading Senate Democrats at the White House. There was “universal agreement,” he added, “we must go big and bold.”

The message has been the same, aides to Democratic senators told CNN, on private calls with his caucus.

They described a new majority leader bursting with excitement, determined to move the process along quickly, repeatedly warning skeptics in his ranks of the dangers of doing too little, or waiting too long — do not, he has warned, make “the mistake of 2009,” when the Obama administration and Senate Democrats passed a trimmed-down stimulus bill in response to the financial crisis. It stopped the bleeding, yes, but set in motion a desperately slow recovery.

An aide to a moderate Senate Democrat tracking the negotiations said that Schumer’s urgency over the Covid relief package is more likely motivated by “fear of letting Republicans play Lucy with the football game like they did with Obama” than worries over a primary challenge.

Making the job even more difficult: Schumer is working with the narrowest possible majority. The Senate is split, 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. Vice President Kamala Harris is the tie-breaker. One holdout and a party line vote would fail. Schumer would, inevitably, shoulder the blame.

Schumer arrives for a news conference following the weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol January 4, 2018 in Washington, DC.

“He has one of the toughest jobs in Washington right now. He’s the majority leader of a caucus that has zero margin for error. And I don’t mean 1%, I mean zero,” Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, told CNN this week. “I think, thus far, he’s handling it well. He’s handling it by persuasion not by coercion. He’s talking to people, listening and trying to accommodate their needs, but it’s a very tough position.”

Another Senate aide, to a progressive Democrat, offered a similar description of Schumer’s style: friendly, verbose, sympathetic, but ultimately unyielding.

“He’s got a really calming disposition and pretty skilled in terms of moderating a lot of these member calls,” the aide said. “He’s careful to validate concerns, to gently push back, to make personal inquiries into so-and-so member about a particular issue. I think he shows a kind of skill, the hand-holding and the process, and I think he has a pretty good, kind of granular grasp of some of the policy considerations, too.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, of Connecticut, put it this way: “Chuck’s style is unique. He is frenetically connected to his caucus members.”

“In many ways, Schumer is made for this moment,” Murphy said. “Managing an effective one-seat majority in the Senate is really hard and it requires you to know what every single member of your caucus is thinking on an hour-to-hour basis, because one disgruntled member can potentially upset your agenda.”

Other Senate aides, past and present, told CNN they were not surprised by Schumer’s tack with the caucus or his determination to cheer lead and cajole for Biden’s agenda. He is, at 70-years-old, after a combined four decades in the House and Senate, as relentless as ever. This is his dream job, old friends and allies said, the work of a lifetime.

“Very hands on, very hands on,” is how Jim Manley, a longtime aide to the last Democratic majority leader, Nevada’s Harry Reid, described Schumer. “That flip phone in his hands can serve as a dangerous weapon … He’s like the Energizer bunny, he just won’t stop.”

Schumer talks on his phone before the Senate impeachment vote on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on February 5, 2020.

The phone comes up a lot in conversations about Schumer. It’s his connector of choice to a vast world of colleagues, liberal political movers, friends, family and donors — and a shorthand for his analog political style. During a video meeting with local news organizations last month, it kept ringing. He ignored it and thanked the newsroom leaders on the call for their work; they thanked him for directing federal relief money to the hard-hit industry.

“(Nancy) Pelosi has called me and Biden so I won’t be able to be on for too much longer,” he said after a while, in a scene described on Syracuse.com, the web home for the Central New York city’s Post-Standard newspaper. Schumer was a Brooklyn kid, he’s a Brooklyn resident, but he makes a point of visiting all of the state’s 62 counties every year.

Daniel Squadron, who began as Schumer’s body man in the early 2000s and served as a state senator for much of the next decade, enjoyed it — mostly — from up close. (Schumer and his wife, Iris, introduced Squadron to his future wife, not an uncommon story in Schumerworld circles.)

Working for Schumer, Squadron said, is “incredibly intense. There’s no better graduate school for how to be a public servant and do politics.”

But it is Schumer now learning on the job. Squadron said he didn’t expect it to be a steep curve.

“Whether it’s Hamilton County, New York, or a colleague in the Capitol, he is a hundred percent invested and engaging, listening, convincing, cajoling, supporting — in every one of those interactions,” Squadron said. “I remember him hanging up that flip phone and turning to me in the back seat — he always gets in the front seat — and saying, like, ‘Oh, you know, so-and-so colleague is feeling better.'”

Asked what his old boss would make of the state’s growing left-wing energy and infrastructure, Squadron said the question — one he’d clearly heard before — was all wrong. It misunderstood Schumer. Worried? No. He loves it.

“Lots of activism and engagement and interest is — that’s Chuck Schumer’s world. The more engaged and active people are the better,” Squadron said. “The Sunday press conference: he’s talked about it sometimes as a way to talk to folks who may not be as focused on the day-to-day of politics.”

Manley, the former Reid aide, said he told Schumer to quit the famous weekly pressers back in 2017, when Schumer took over the Senate Democratic caucus.

“No one is going to ever accuse Sen. Schumer of not paying enough attention to his home state,” Manley said. “For better or for worse. I, for one, wish he’d stopped his Sunday press conferences. In fact, I told him that when he became a minority leader. He’s got too much to do.”

Reading the ‘tea leaves’

That was about four years ago. Hillary Clinton had just lost the presidency to Donald Trump. Schumer took over from Reid, but not under the circumstances he had hoped for, or expected. He immediately moved to add Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent whose primary campaign electrified the Democratic grassroots, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to his leadership team, which also includes moderate West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

Schumer also announced that he would support the bid of then-Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota progressive and Sanders ally, to chair the Democratic National Committee. Ellison ultimately fell short, on a second ballot, that February at a party meeting in Atlanta. Former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez won the job with a boost from the former President and his allies.

The contest, mostly forgotten to history and the dizzying news cycles of the Trump era, turned ugly by the end. On the eve of the vote, the American Jewish Congress sent out an email saying that the DNC, in potentially selecting Ellison, risked “threaten(ing) the relationship between America and our ally Israel.” The message followed a brief but tense campaign opposing Ellison over past remarks about Israel. The late attack sparked outrage on the left, deepening the divides in an already fractured and shell-shocked Democratic Party.

For some progressives, though, the DNC campaign changed their view of Schumer. He had been criticized on the left for his opposition in 2015 to the Iran Nuclear Deal and for what many still perceive as an unwillingness to press Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians. But even as efforts grew to discredit Ellison grew, Schumer didn’t cut bait. And before the DNC vote, he put out a statement re-affirming his support.

“He stuck with Keith when he didn’t have to. So there’s been a number of overtures (to the left) that have actually taken some political mettle and a little bit of skin in the game that he’s demonstrated from like pretty early on,” a progressive congressional aide said. “It’s not just costless signaling and superficial kind of hand-waving.”

Schumer talks to reporters following the weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol January 07, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Nearly two years later, as Ocasio-Cortez prepared to enter Congress — after ousting Rep. Joe Crowley, who had been tipped as a potential successor to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a primary — Schumer embraced the leaders of the young, diverse progressive movement that backstopped Ocasio-Cortez and what would be known as “the squad.”

Evan Weber, political director of the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led champions of the Green New Deal, recalled an early meeting with Schumer, set up by the senator’s office.

“When we first met with Sen. Schumer, he said, ‘You know, I know you guys have been protesting at my office. That’s fine. Doesn’t really faze me. I was an activist once too.’ So that’s, I guess,” Weber laughed, “his opinion on the matter. All I know is that, whatever we’re doing, he seems to be moving in the right direction” on climate, inequality and democracy reform issues.

Weber, like others interviewed, argued that it was reductive to view Schumer’s embrace of a expanding list progressive goals as cagey sops to the left. There are other incentives at play.

“It includes both him reading the tea leaves about potential threats to his own political career in New York, with its muscular left infrastructure, securing victory after victory,” Weber said. “But I also think that he may be reading the tea leaves for his party more broadly, and knowing that if they can deliver on these things, it both helps Democrats win and keeps him in power as the Senate majority leader.”

Simply put, Democrats across the party’s ideological spectrum want action — now. And for now, at least, there is general agreement on scope and direction of the agenda spelled out by the Biden administration.

Schumer has only broken with Biden on the question of student debt relief, a top progressive priority. On Thursday, he joined Warren, Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, North Carolina Rep. Alma Adams and New York Rep. Mondaire Jones at a news conference to reintroduce a resolution calling on the President to use his executive authority to cancel $50,000 per lender. Biden has floated a figure around $10,000 and suggested he wanted Congress to take the lead.

New York, New York… New York!

In New York, Schumer’s standing appears to be as strong as ever.

As majority leader, he is positioned to deliver handsomely to his home state and its Covid-racked economy. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, ripped into Schumer in March of 2020, after the passage of the CARES Act, the first pandemic relief package, saying at a news conference, “It would be nice if he passed a piece of legislation that actually helped the State of New York.”

The tetchiness in Schumer’s relationship with Cuomo, who celebrated Schumer’s ascendance this year, knowing it all but guaranteed federal aid to the state, is another quiet point in the majority leader’s favor with New York progressives. In 2020, when the state — with Cuomo’s blessing — upped the requirement for third parties to qualify for the ballot under its fusion voting system, Schumer was the highest-ranking Democratic officeholder to publicly encourage New Yorkers to vote for Biden where he appeared on the Working Families Party’s endangered line.

Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the Working Families Party in New York, a longtime progressive rival to the governor, praised Schumer, one of the WFP’s first endorsements back in 1998, for supporting the party during a time of crisis.

“When powerful Democrats in New York States were dead-set on a weakening the Working Families Party and the progressive movement,” she said, “Sen. Schumer, along with AOC, with (New York City Public Advocate) Jumaane Williams, were Democrats who threw their force behind us and who encouraged New Yorkers to vote on our line.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks during a press conference about student debt outside the U.S. Capitol on February 4, 2021 in Washington, DC. Also pictured, L-R, Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY), Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA).

In the end, the WFP easily cleared the new qualification threshold and will retain its place on the ballot, a crucial and unique tool — groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and Justice Democrats do not run candidates — in its efforts to drive Democratic politicians left.

But longtime Schumer friends and allies tend to downplay these as tactical decisions — inside baseball, they say, just watch the guy work — when asked about his prospects in 2022. Even most progressives will concede that Democratic incumbents felled over the past few years by progressive challengers suffered as much for ideological reasons as the perception — in both the cases of Crowley and former Rep. Eliot Engel, who was defeated in a 2020 primary by Rep. Jamaal Bowman — that they had become disconnected from their home districts.

For any potential challenger to Schumer, it would be difficult to convincingly make a similar case.

“There are tons of New Yorkers seeing Chuck Schumer at their high school graduation or college graduation. He is a representative of New Yorkers and New Yorkers get that and appreciate that and appreciate his incredible connection to them,” said Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers. “It’s just different. It’s not the same as what had happened (with the other incumbents who lost), it’s just apples to oranges.”

At that, Weingarten, leader of one of the country’s largest and most powerful unions and an only-in-New York political figure to rival Schumer, offered a memory.

“Chuck Schumer was at my wedding, OK. He stayed the whole night! He danced the whole night. He goes to the weddings of all his staff,” she said, then paused, searching for the last word. “It’s just… he’s a mensch.”

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