Will Schumer Run For Governor?

Posted September 24, 2003 at 5:47pm

As he continues to stoke his fat bank account despite only token opposition to his 2004 re-election campaign, political insiders are inevitably asking two questions about Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.):

• What will he do with all the money (more than $16.5 million cash on hand, at last report)?

• Will he turn around and run for governor in 2006, when he can use the entire surplus from the Senate campaign for a gubernatorial run and tap his Senate donors for even greater contributions?

“It’s been a rumor,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic consultant.

That rumor gained renewed credibility this week when the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion released a poll showing that Schumer is the only Democrat who can beat three-term Gov. George Pataki (R). Schumer, whose job approval ratings were sky-high in the poll, defeated Pataki 50 percent to 43 percent in a trial heat.

For its part, the Schumer camp says the Senator is only concentrating on his 2004 re-election and will have nothing to say about 2006.

Still, the rumor is discussed with surprising regularity in the Empire State. Fleshed out, it goes something like this: Frustrated by the Democrats’ inability to reclaim control of the Senate and unhappy with all the attention that New York’s superstar junior Senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton (D), receives, Schumer may opt for a job that can sate his thirst for publicity — a job he started running for in the 1998 cycle, before switching to the Senate race.

“Being there with Hillary and to some extent being in her shadow is difficult [for Schumer],” said one Democratic consultant who has worked for Schumer in the past. “And that’s a dynamic that’s never going to change as long as they’re in the Senate together.”

Of course, Clinton could run for president in 2008 — or in 2004.

But Schumer may also be jealous of all the attention New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who is considered the early frontrunner in the 2006 Democratic contest for governor, routinely receives in the New York press.

“Chuck is enormously competitive, and I’m sure seeing Eliot basking in the glow for the last year, year and a half has been gnawing at him,” a consultant said.

It may have provided Schumer some satisfaction that Spitzer trailed Pataki by 9 points in the same poll that showed Schumer leading the governor by 7 points.

Schumer’s competitive streak was hard to miss in the 1998 cycle, when he considered uphill battles for both governor and Senate after spending 18 years in a safe House seat.

The governor’s race would have pitted him against Pataki, who wound up winning re-election in 1998 by 21 points.

But the Senate race was just as tough. First, Schumer faced a competitive primary against two accomplished politicians, former Rep. and vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, and then-New York City Public Advocate Mark Green, the 1986 Senate nominee. After vanquishing Ferraro and Green, Schumer faced a bruising and expensive general election against the ferociously competitive Sen. Al D’Amato (R).

People familiar with Schumer’s internal debate said his decision to run for Senate then was based partially on political calculation, but also on the advice of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), his friend and former roommate when both were House Members. Durbin assured Schumer that being a Senator was a worthwhile experience.

Today, by all accounts, being Senator is still a worthy gig for Schumer, who is one of the most visible and outspoken members of the Democratic Caucus. But he may still feel the pull of a gubernatorial race, and in New York, where there is a $33,000 campaign contribution limit for statewide races, Schumer could use any leftover money from the Senate race to build on a run for governor.

“He clears the Democratic field,” Sheinkopf predicted.

Still, other people who know Schumer well say they cannot picture him any place but in the Senate. Including his service in the New York Assembly, Schumer has been a legislator for 29 consecutive years.

“I think he’s a Washington guy,” said a prominent Brooklyn Democrat who has been a neighbor of Schumer’s for 20 years. “I don’t see him doing anything but Washington.”

Some people say that even if Democrats remain in the minority, Schumer is relishing the thought of a fight over President Bush’s Supreme Court nominations when they come, and all the attendant publicity.

“Once the Supreme Court stuff comes up, he’ll be right in his element,” said one Washington-based Democratic strategist who knows New York politics — and Schumer — well.

What’s more, this strategist said, even though Schumer could probably beat Spitzer, he would not enjoy a primary fight with him for a job that might have limited appeal.

“He just hates the shit that governors do,” the strategist said. “He likes to be big, but you can be bigger, with less pressure and less responsibilities, in the Senate.”

Joseph Mercurio, a New York-based Democratic consultant, also dismisses the talk of a Schumer gubernatorial candidacy. But he said he believes the rumor is coming from Republicans, who are frustrated by their inability to find a credible challenger to Schumer. So far, only 33-year-old civic activist Michael Benjamin is seeking the GOP nomination, and he had just $123,000 in the bank as of June 30.

“I think it’s like a Republican plot,” Mercurio said. “They don’t know what to do with Schumer so they try to cause disarray among him and other Democrats.”

A D.C. operative familiar with New York politics said the Schumer trial balloon may be being floated by New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D), who feuds occasionally with Spitzer and privately invokes Schumer’s name to bring Spitzer to heel.

But before the talk of Schumer and a statehouse run comes to any resolution, there is the little matter of his Senate campaign. While re-election appears to be a foregone conclusion, some Democratic leaders warn that the 2004 New York Senate race could still draw a big name, such as Pataki or former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R), or a business person with deep pockets who would run just to curry favor with the Bush administration.

The Marist poll showed Schumer with a comfortable 16-point lead over Pataki in a trial Senate matchup, but losing to Giuliani by 6 points.

“He may need that money,” said Herman “Denny” Farrell, chairman of the Empire State Democratic Party.

Even though Giuliani and Pataki have not shown the faintest interest in the 2004 Senate campaign, Schumer supporters note that the cost of campaigning in New York — whether the election is competitive or not — is prohibitive.

But despite the Democrats’ caution, the likelihood is that Schumer will still have a fair amount of his war chest to burn in the latter part of the 2004 cycle. So if he doesn’t hoard it for 2006, will he begin to spread a substantial portion of it around to needy Democrats as Election Day draws near?

Asked that question, several Democratic strategists in Washington shrugged nervously.

Debra DeShong, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, said the DNC’s position on a potential windfall from Schumer is: “Let’s take it one step at a time.”

One veteran Democratic fundraiser in New York said Schumer always had a competitive streak and was always a relentless fundraiser, even when he did not have to sweat his House campaigns. First, he was nervous that redistricting would one day force him into a primary with then-Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.), then he was looking ahead to a statewide run.

In other words, don’t expect Schumer to be too generous with his hard-earned money, the fundraiser said: “I don’t think he’s the kind of guy who plays well with others.”

And maybe those speculating on Schumer’s political future should look beyond Albany and Capitol Hill.

In his 2002 book “After,” a sweeping look at politics and policy in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes, author Steven Brill writes at length about Schumer’s fight to win federal aid for New York. Brill concludes that Clinton may not be the only Senator from New York looking to run for higher office in 2008.