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Schumer as minority leader: a high-energy balancing act on local, national issues

Democrats talked a lot about health care and protecting people with pre-existing medical conditions before this year's midterm election, and to hear Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer tell it, that campaign theme took root in part at – of all places – the Taste of Buffalo.

"When I was up there this time, more people talked about health care and pre-existing conditions than anything else," Schumer said in an interview in his office in the Capitol last week. "And I knew that was an issue we had to focus on. It's so vital to people."

And so Schumer pushed Democratic candidates to talk up health care every chance they got.

That sort of melding of the national and the local defined Schumer's first 18 years in the Senate. But then, two years ago, he became minority leader, a demanding job in which he essentially serves as both coach and captain of the Senate Democrats' defense against the Republican majority.

Senate Democrats re-elected Schumer minority leader last week. Which raises an obvious question: Is the Brooklyn-based lawmaker still the state-focused senator that he was before?

Judging from what people who work with him say, he's just a more time-pressed version of the senator he always was.

"We haven't seen any difference in his advocacy or his efforts since the change," said Niagara County Manager Rick Updegrove, a Republican who works with Schumer on issues concerning the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station. "He's still a strong advocate for us."

Schumer's annual visits to the base continued after he became minority leader, as did his annual visits to all 62 of New York's counties.

"He's still focused on all the local issues that you'd expect," said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, a Democrat.

Schumer can be a bit harder to reach on the phone than he once was, but Poloncarz said the senator always returns calls within 24 to 48 hours.

He does so even though the demands on his time are much greater than in previous years, when he was farther down the ranks of Senate Democrats.

The time pressures Schumer faces came clear on Thursday morning, as he fit an interview with The Buffalo News in between meetings with Democratic senators angling for committee assignments in the next Congress.

"As busy as I am here with my new responsibilities, I have not diminished my attention on Western New York by one second or one iota of energy," Schumer said.

That means Schumer still goes to Rochester's Park Avenue Festival every year and still spends four or five hours mingling at the Taste of Buffalo.

"It's the greatest cross-section of average folks," he said. "If you spend four hours there, you hear 100, 200 comments. So it helps me do my job. ... Lots of things I do in Washington are because I'm up and talking to people, I'm out with my constituents, hearing what they have to say."

Schumer said he's physically able to bear both his national and his New York-focused responsibilities, too.

"God gave me a lot of energy," he said. "I only need four or five hours sleep. And I have enough energy to do both, and its important that I do both."

But seriously, didn't Schumer have to cut back somewhere?

"Maybe some of the schmoozing" with local politicians, he said.

Now instead of schmoozing with New York politicians, Schumer is more likely to be taking calls from President Trump. Given the arcane rules that pretty much require all Senate legislation to pass with a 60-vote supermajority, the president and the Republican Senate leadership must make a certain percentage of Schumer's Democrats happy to get much of anything done.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), left, has a moment with President Trump in the Oval Office on Sept. 6, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images)

Trump tends to dismiss Schumer like he does every other Democrat – with a snarky nickname. In this case, it's "Cryin' Chuck," in response to the Brooklyn Democrat's emotional response to Trump's January 2017 moves to limit immigration.

But that doesn't mean the two New Yorkers can't get business done, particularly on trade issues.

"Every time he does something on China, he calls me," Schumer said of the president. "I told him all along: focus on China. They're ripping us off in every way, stealing our intellectual property, stealing our jobs."

Trump and Schumer also talked about Canada's cartel-like dairy system in early 2017, after Schumer heard complaints about it from upstate dairy farmers. So when the Trump administration renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement into a new deal called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the Trump administration pressured Canada into changes that will help those New York farmers.

"I told him we've got to do something about this, and they did. and its going to be much better for our dairy farmers," Schumer said.

Schumer's sway with the White House probably increased with the November election even though Democrats are likely to have two fewer Senate seats starting next year. Democrats won control of the House, meaning they can actually pass bills there and send them on to the Senate, essentially challenging the Republican-led chamber to pass them.

"It gives us more leverage and it pushes the president, who hasn't been compromising much, to compromise to get something done," Schumer said.

He said he would urge House Democrats to focus first on issues that will help the middle class. Health care legislation that protects people with pre-existing conditions and that controls prescription drug prices should be a priority, he said, as should a major infrastructure package.

That bill would be especially helpful to Western New York, where much of the infrastructure is 50 or 100 years old, Schumer said. What's more, he said that infrastructure bill also ought to include rural broadband initiatives that ensure that places like Wyoming County get internet service every bit as good as people in big cities get.

"I think there's a chance to work with the president, with the Republicans, and get a really good infrastructure bill done," Schumer said.

And that, Schumer said, would fit in with what he's been trying to do for two decades: helping New York State while helping the nation.

Schumer introduces Democratic infrastructure plan



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