Schumer grabs new power

Greg Nash

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) is all but certain to become the next leader of Senate Democrats after the 2016 elections, completing a rise to power that began more than a decade ago.

Schumer spent Friday calling fellow Democratic senators to win their support to succeed Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), who endorsed Schumer after announcing he would not run for reelection. He believes he has the votes to win an overwhelming majority of the caucus, a person close to Schumer said.

If Democrats recapture Senate control next year, Schumer would become the first Jewish majority leader in the chamber. As things stand, he would become the first Jewish minority leader.

{mosads}The looming promotion validates Schumer’s decision, over a decade ago, to forego a gubernatorial bid and climb the Senate’s leadership latter instead.

Schumer, who was first elected to the Senate in 1998, was mulling a primary challenge against former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2004 when Reid offered him the chairmanship of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). To sweeten the deal, Reid also promised to place him on the powerful Finance Committee.

“In short, this was an offer that, for the sake of New York, I could not refuse,” Schumer said in a statement at the time.

It was actually a difficult decision at the time, say people close to Schumer. But once it was made, it put him on the trajectory for a rapid political ascent.

“He had a critical decision to make about 12 years ago, whether or not to run for governor of New York and decided he wanted to cast his lot in the Senate,” said Israel Klein, a principal at Podesta Group and a former senior aide to Schumer.

“Whether it was going to be becoming the Democratic leader or the chairman of x committee, he thought he could do a lot more for New York in the long run. It’s hard to argue that New York will not get the biggest bang for buck with Chuck Schumer in the Senate,” he added. 

With Schumer at the helm of their Senate campaign arm, Democrats unexpectedly captured the majority in 2006, defeating six Republican incumbents.  

As a reward, Reid appointed him as vice chairman of the Democratic conference, creating a new leadership position and putting him at the No. 3 spot in the Senate Democratic hierarchy.

He signed up for another stint as DSCC chairman in 2008 and achieved another huge political success when Democrats picked up eight Republican seats, putting them on the cusp of a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority. They achieved it in 2009 when moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) switched to the Democratic Party.

With the landslide election of President Barack Obama, Schumer stepped down from the campaign committee to focus on policy while Democrats planned to move major healthcare and Wall Street reform initiatives.

After Democrats lost six seats in the Tea Party wave of 2010, Reid put Schumer in charge of coordinating the Democratic floor agenda and political messaging operation, a major expansion of influence. He became chairman of the newly created Democratic Policy and Communications Center, which merged the Senate Democratic Communications Center and the Democratic Policy Committee.

From that perch, Schumer put together an agenda and political platform focused on the middle class.

“We will be aggressive and use every tool at our disposal to show that we are focused like a laser on the middle class,” he said at the time.

One policy change Schumer relentlessly advocated for was to raise the threshold for repealing the Bush-era tax rates from the $250,000 level favored by Obama to $1 million, a boon to families in expensive states such as New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Democrats achieved success in the 2012 elections, picking up two Senate seats, defying expectations early in the cycle that they would lose ground.

Schumer played a pivotal role in crafting party strategy again in the 2014 cycle, putting together the Fair Shot agenda. It focused on raising the minimum wage to $10.10, promoting paycheck equity between men and women, lessening student debt burdens, and ending tax credits giving companies incentive to move jobs overseas.

The message, however, failed to penetrate as many voters were more concerned about the shaky rollout of ObamaCare, a surge of illegal minor immigrants on the Southwest border and the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Democrats lost nine seats and the majority for the first time since 2006.

In a post-election analysis delivered at the National Press Club in November, Schumer said Democrats should have focused more on bread-and-butter economic issues instead of passing expansive healthcare reform in 2009, an argument that did not go over well with some liberals.

Several centrist Democrats scrambling to distance themselves from the party establishment in Washington called for Reid to be replaced as Senate minority leader ahead of the midterm election. Schumer, however, declined to challenge Reid, pledging loyalty instead.

Reid rewarded him with a ringing endorsement Friday, all but sealing his ascension to the top of the leadership.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat, publicly endorsed Schumer on Friday.

Reid praised Schumer in a radio interview, calling him his top deputy and acknowledging the significant clout he already wields in the caucus.

“Chuck Schumer, everybody knows, has been my lieutenant for a lot of years,” he told KNPR Nevada public radio. “Schumer’s a brilliant man from New York and he’s been a tremendous asset to me.”

Tags Chuck Schumer Democratic Caucus of the United States Senate Dick Durbin Harry Reid

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