Sen. Charles Schumer has long been known from Buffalo to the Bronx for his outsized political presence and meteoric rise. With the midterm elections fast approaching and congressional Democrats working hard just to hang on, Schumer is looking beyond November and working to expand his clout even further.
Working the halls and levers of power, Schumer has positioned himself to ascend to the top position in Congress, and in the process become New York's most powerful elected leader since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Schumer has been campaigning assiduously for Majority Leader Harry Reid's job while Reid is engaged in a difficult re-election campaign. While such politicking is seen as taboo in the stuffy U.S. Senate, this has not restrained Schumer and his famous sharp elbows. It's a job Schumer has long coveted, and Schumer has never let traditional niceties obscure his ambitions.
Even if Reid loses -- and today, he is no better than 50-50 to survive -- Schumer would face stiff competition for the position from Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, one of President Obama's mentors and closest friends. As the Democratic whip, Durbin is seen by many as Reid's rightful heir, particularly over Schumer who is officially the third-ranking Democrat.
Nonetheless, despite these obstacles, Schumer is the front-runner to succeed Reid for two key reasons. First, Schumer is the favorite of the freshmen Democrats who will make up around one-third of the party caucus. As the two-time head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee or DSCC, Schumer recruited nearly all of them to run in the first place and helped guide their campaigns with mentorship and financing from his Manhattan donor base. These strategic relationships Schumer has carefully built would assure him of nearly half the votes he would need to win.
Probable midterm losses should also play to Schumer's advantage. With Democrats likely to hold the Senate but endure searing defeats in November, many liberal senators will place the blame on the president's lapel, and by extension, on Durbin. Senators in turn may prefer a fresh leader to replace the frustratingly ineffective Reid, a boon for the brash Schumer.
Many aides and Senate followers agree that coupled with the loyal backing of new senators, this will give Schumer enough votes to become the Democrats' next Senate leader should Reid lose. That Durbin and Schumer are actually D.C. housemates adds an intriguing subtext, and makes it probable that one of the longtime uneasy allies may be living elsewhere next year.
This is not to say that Schumer won't encounter opposition. Many of Schumer's fellow senators, while respecting his intelligence and political skill, are turned off by his grating penchant for self-promotion.
There is also grumbling that by maneuvering himself for Reid's job, Schumer is being disloyal to the man who elevated his career by naming him DSCC chairman and later vice chairman of the Democratic caucus.
But frankly, these complaints ring a bit hollow. Politics is a rough business, and as Washingtonians know, the next election is never far away. That Reid is in such a pitiful re-election position has been known to any half-aware political observer for some time, whether or not one wants to ignore his precarious electoral standing. Thus, his leadership position is fair game.
Schumer knows this and has long understood the rules of politics better than most. It is how he has risen from 23-year-old Albany backbencher, to a congressman at 30, to the Senate's third-ranking member, and how he has been so singularly effective in promoting New York's interests, even if, as his detractors like to argue, he takes care to promote himself, too.
Why does this matter for the Empire State? If Schumer were to replace Reid, he would become one of the most influential leaders in the country, perhaps behind only the president. The mercurial Mike Bloomberg, who has sparred at times with Schumer, and the governor-in-waiting, Andrew M. Cuomo, may garner more headlines, but if Schumer won, he would become New York's kingmaker, and both Bloomberg and Cuomo would have to come to him to procure what they want from the federal spigot.
As majority leader, Schumer would have control over the national agenda, and could bring new riches and perks to the state. Increased anti-terrorism funds, a bigger push to bring high-speed rail to the Northeast and new aid to the desperate upstate all could be passed by Schumer after years of New York and the region being shortchanged by Washington. These are items even Schumer's sharpest critics would find praiseworthy.
Schumer has positioned himself to become one of the most powerful men in the nation. Whether one likes Schumer or can't stand him, ultimately, that's good news for New York.
Mark Greenbaum is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.