Daniel L. Feldman

The other side of Schumer

In NYC Politics on August 5, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Liz had gotten me thinking. Since the age of 10, my only real career goal had been to serve in elective public office. As the sting of my 1973 and 1974 defeats wore off, my burning need to hold office reasserted itself. As much as I liked Schumer, I had no intention of working for him – or anyone else — as a long-term career. I also had a few reservations about him in particular. His strong advocacy of the war in Vietnam in his younger years, when everyone I respected opposed it, or – as a young elected official — his blithe attendance at an affair honoring the despicable Roy Cohn (he claimed that he didn’t know who Roy Cohn was, and really attended to meet the then-popular New York Post gossip columnist Claudia Cohen) gave me some cause for concern. It really wasn’t just Chuck, though: I had no problem with any part of Liz’s record, but I still felt I would be more comfortable setting my own policy agenda.

By 1978, Schumer made it clear to me that if Holtzman ran for the U.S. Senate against Jacob Javits, as she seemed likely to do, he would run for the congressional seat. In turn, I told him that if he ran for Congress, I would run for his Assembly seat. He seemed to think that was a good idea. In fact, he suggested that on those evenings when he had to stay in Albany for legislative sessions, I should represent him at meetings in the district. This would increase my visibility, while helping him at the same time. I was delighted to comply.

With a bigger staff, our Committee on Oversight & Investigations churned out more revelations and generated more press coverage for Schumer. Chuck used to say that I could write a headline for any press release that would guarantee that no one would read it. But he had written the headlines, and we got phenomenal press coverage. With the addition to our staff of Josh Howard, a brilliant young public relations expert, Schumer no longer had the sole burden of translating my turgid prose into attention-grabbing headlines.

I was working long days for Schumer. During the day I continued the research that he and Josh translated into superb publicity, and at night I transmitted his compliments to three or four community groups at various locations throughout the Assembly district, and sometimes at locations elsewhere in the congressional district. Chuck could hit seven or eight community groups a night, because he would barge in, immediately grab a microphone – or just use his built-in one – and charm the crowd. As a far more reserved person, I was constitutionally incapable of doing likewise. I would wait, sometimes a long time, to be recognized, finally pay my respects – pay Chuck’s respects, really – and then try to leave without seeming to do so abruptly or impolitely. So these were long nights.

But as 1979 drew on, I began getting disturbing signals from Chuck. When I tried to hint that I would like his support for the Assembly seat, first he told me that his brother Robert might run, and of course he would be obligated to support his own brother. When it became clear that Robert would not run (two candidates with the same last name on the same ballot at the same time hurt each other’s electoral chances), he took a different tack.  He began to undermine my self confidence as a candidate.

When I argued that I had garnered a respectable vote against my incumbent City Council opponent, he found ways to discount that showing: my support merely reflected ethnic voting patterns, or generalized dissatisfaction with Walter, or some other factor not indicative of my personal popularity. He told me that since people close to me liked me, they encouraged me politically because they didn’t want to hurt my feelings, but in fact as a candidate I did not generate a good response from the public. Most cruelly of all, he told me that I my Chinese cooking was terrible – that the compliments I received were simply another example of how my friends spared my feelings.

Because I thought Chuck was a friend, these comments caused me tremendous anguish. Chuck announced his own candidacy for Congress in January 1980. When I told him that I wanted to announce my candidacy for the Assembly seat shortly thereafter, he strongly discouraged me. Given Chuck’s tremendous popularity in the Assembly district, I could not afford to antagonize him; besides, I still thought he was my friend. Talk about self-delusion! It was not until he actually advised me not to raise money or generate any press for my candidacy that I came to the full realization that he was not on my side. Gullible as I might have been, I had been in politics too long to fall for that advice.

In retrospect, Chuck’s “advice” actually did contain some elements of truth. He once said to me “politics is public relations.” I thought it was service to the public. Obviously, his grasp on the realities were vastly superior to mine. Given his extraordinary acumen and sensitivity to public relations and appearances, even his comments about my Chinese cooking were not necessarily insincere. Over the years enough people have enjoyed it to reassure me that it tastes good. However, I’ve never been a visually-oriented person, and especially in those days I paid no attention to appearance: my dishes rarely if ever sported attractive color schemes, or in any other way appealed to the eye.

His perception of my political abilities also had a basis in fact. When he compared me with himself, he must have seen a somewhat formal, reserved person, not aggressive, incapable of sound-bite responses or thrusting himself into the consciousness of a crowd, at least by the standards of politicians. His own opposite characteristics helped to make him a great politician. He may well have foreseen that I would never achieve high office, given my deficiencies. With his early support, of course, the Assembly seat would have been mine anyway. But perhaps he thought the better future for me would have been in a top-level staff capacity – perhaps working for him.

The foregoing puts the kindest possible spin on Schumer’s treatment of me. Just as likely, and perhaps simultaneously, he had some self-interested motivation. After all, there were several other potential candidates for the Assembly seat, and by withholding his support from any of us, he might avoid alienating any of our respective supporters from his own candidacy. Indeed, he had at least one of the other potential candidates other than myself, Gene Krauss, representing him at communities meetings as well. He may have had some psychological motivation as well. On a few occasions before my campaign became an issue, he had mostly good-naturedly complained that the rest of our Committee staff liked me better than they liked him.

He never gave me permission to run. When I left his staff in June to announce and begin my formal candidacy, it looked like I could not expect his endorsement. Since I had actually worked for him, his refusal to endorse any candidate looked far worse for me than for the other candidates – it carried an implicit message that he disapproved of my candidacy, and I suppose he did. Late in June, when (as I will explained in a subsequent post) Herb Lupka, the leader of the regular Democratic club of the 45th Assembly district began working with me, Lupka kept telling me that Schumer had undermined my candidacy with him and with various community leaders, and I believed him. Years later, after I gradually learned that Lupka loved to create trouble and animosity among his various political friends, I began to suspect that he had at least exaggerated Schumer’s negative influence.

Still, Liz Holtzman’s behavior stood in sharp contrast to Schumer’s. She invited me to draft her endorsement of my candidacy, and when I submitted it to her, told me that it wasn’t strong enough – she wrote a stronger one! Chuck had persuaded me that he was my friend. My devoted work for him, with my usual fourteen or fifteen hour work days, allowed him to generate spectacular press coverage. I felt that I deserved his immediate and outright endorsement. I saw his failure to endorse me as a terrible betrayal, but his long and sustained psychological campaign to undermine my self-confidence was even worse.

 

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