Daniel L. Feldman

Assemblyman Charles Schumer

In New York State Government on July 29, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Sun Tzu referred to the saying, apparently well known in his time, that “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Chapter 3, section 18, transl. of Sun Tzu on the Art of War by Lionel Giles, 1910, originally written 6th century B.C.

Most of us think knowing yourself is the easy part, but we are wrong. Politicians, including myself, tend to fall prey to self-delusion. Once I got into office, like many others, I would happily peruse my press coverage. On some level, consciously or not, I assumed that the voters absorbed the same information. Of course they did not – certainly not the vast majority.

Schumer never made that mistake. When he was a member of the Assembly, he managed to win more press attention, sometimes, than the rest of the Legislature put together. He also hit all the morning subway stops, all the graduation ceremonies from elementary school up, all the lobby meetings to organize tenant associations, every community organization meeting, and he was a loud and visible presence. His voice was so loud that it occurred to me once to think that perhaps he had a compact bullhorn implanted in his chest.

Nonetheless, I remember him storming into the office one morning, listing all the things he did to make himself known, and ranting that half the voters still didn’t know who he was – “they could be dead for all the impact I make on them!,” or words to that effect. We got some poll numbers: he was right that only about half of the voters recognized his name at that point – but other local elected officials had a fraction of his name recognition levels. This did not satisfy Schumer.
Everyone who has watched Schumer in action credits his enormous and varied political skills. Since most people underestimate the power of self-delusion, however, they underestimate the significance of his strong grasp on reality. When I worked for him, he was brash, shameless, coarse. He really did epitomize the old and unfair image of the obnoxious, pushy Jew. But he was quite aware of all this, took it into account, factored it into his calculations, and proceeded accordingly.

Some of his other skills drew me to him. He understood me better than I understood him at the time. He knew how to recruit to his service my passion for honesty in government. I expected that we would expose corruption, outrage the power structure, and lose our funding. After all, the Assembly Speaker, Stanley Fink, came out of the clubhouse of Meade Esposito himself, the Democratic County Leader of Brooklyn, and while I had heard good things about Fink in the legislative context, surely attacks on corruption would rile the established power structure, and therefore Esposito and his allies. Therefore, I thought I would work for Chuck for a year or two before he’d be forced to let me go, and I’d search for another job.

But Schumer knew better. He told someone once that I was an “unguided missile,” but he guided me. He had no problem with much of my agenda: having run the Summer Food Program investigation, I knew we would find good targets in New York City’s drug abuse treatment programs when I saw some of the same crooks in management positions. My instincts and background also led me to real estate issues, generally a fertile ground for financial shenanigans. But sensing my inability to resist a challenge, Schumer also kept me busy learning new fields, like rail freight and criminal justice system capacity, areas in which I could help him build his own expertise while perhaps diverting me from investigations that might prove more dangerous to Schumer’s ambitions.

We made a great team. I wrote solid and comprehensive reports both on the muckraking side and on the pure policy side, and Schumer converted almost all of them into great headline stories that got tremendous press coverage. The press coverage generated reforms: we closed the City unsalvageable drug abuse programs and cleaned up the merely dirty ones; we stopped the City from selling back buildings taken for tax arrears to the same sleazy landlords who had milked them dry and lost them in the first place; we even stopped a City University campus from cheating the State out of tuition reimbursements. Of course I took great satisfaction in all this. Reforming Government, my 1981 book referenced in an earlier blog, tells some of these stories, and they were good ones too.

Schumer drew me closer to him personally with great charm, intelligence, and humor. He could be extremely funny. I will never forget Schumer’s brilliant spot-on mimicry of a fictional argument between Ed Koch and Al Lowenstein, perfectly caricaturing the verbal tics and foibles of each. I think Schumer knew how much I admired Al, but Schumer’s performance was just too hilarious. Of course no one foresaw Al Lowenstein’s tragic demise a few years later.
We went out to dinner together, usually in Chinatown. A fair trencherman myself, Chuck gave me a good run for my money. I cooked Chinese dinners for him and his wife-to-be at my father’s house in Rockaway. I truly thought of him as my friend.
It quickly became clear that I had seriously underestimated Chuck’s political abilities. Not only did our subcommittee not get defunded, in less than one year, as of January 1978, Speaker Fink reconstituted it as a full committee, the Committee on Oversight & Investigation, with Chuck as chair and me as counsel.

Shortly before that, with my mother having died four years earlier and my father unable to deal as a co-resident with my brother’s psychiatric difficulties, my father sold our family house in Belle Harbor and moved to a small apartment in Rego Park in mainland Queens. I moved in with my aunt and uncle in Manhattan Beach. Coincidentally, Schumer’s Assembly district happened to include that neighborhood.

A few months prior, in the late spring of 1977, only a few months after I had started working for Schumer, Liz called me. The Assembly member for what was then the 42nd District, David Greenberg, once known as the hero police officer nicknamed “Batman,” had recently been convicted of fraud. Liz thought I might want to run for the seat. But I had no real connection to that district, centered at the time in the eastern half of Sheepshead Bay while Schumer’s 45th District included the western half. Also, my loss in 1974 seemed too recent for me to contemplate another run right away, and I was greatly enjoying my work with Schumer.

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