Some kids growing up in south Brooklyn in the 1960s had heroes such as Mickey Mantle, John F. Kennedy or The Beatles. For Madison High School graduate Chuck Schumer, it was his grandfather Jacob, a Polish immigrant.
“My real hero is my grandfather,” Schumer said fondly during a recent interview.
It was a quiet, touching moment, free of the increasing nastiness of the campaign trail, in which Schumer, the veteran Democratic Brooklyn congressman, is locked in a contentious, too-close-to-call battle to unseat longtime Republican U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato.
“He was a typical immigrant,” Schumer related, his navy blue suit jacket off as he relaxed in a black leather chair in The Jewish Week’s conference room.
“He was born in Chortkov, that’s Galicia,” Schumer said of his grandfather. “His father was one of the leading disciples of the [chasidic leader] Chortkova Tzaddik, so my chasidic constituents say I have strong yichus [heritage].”
“My grandfather was a dynamic man. He only went through the second grade, but he educated himself. He instilled in me a love of politics. He was an ardent Zionist. And he was just a vibrant man. He was an idealist, and he encouraged you to go act on your ideals. He never had the chance, he always said. He was too poor.”
As a little boy on East 26th Street, Schumer used to sit on the top of the stairs listening to his grandfather and uncles debate the issues of the day.
“He was so interested in the world around him. And it filled me with a love for politics. He was truly an idol to me.”
Jacob Schumer lived to be 93 and see his grandson elected to Congress in 1980. “He got some of the nachas,” Schumer said, smiling.
The importance of family shines through during the course of a recent conversation. Schumer has served his middle-class Brooklyn and Queens congressional district during some of the greatest changes in this century: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the increase in international terrorism, the expansion of the global economy — all issues with which he has grappled. But when asked to name his most traumatic moment as a congressman, the answer involves family.
“My lowest moments in general are the tear between the family and the job,” he explained. “When my second-grade daughter has a play, and I could be the key vote and I have to be in Washington and have to miss it, those are the times I feel the worst.”
Schumer said his proudest moment as a congressman was passing the assault-weapons ban three years ago.
“We were opposed not only by the NRA [National Rifle Association], but by both the Republican and Democratic leaderships. No one thought we could pass it. And I just worked and worked and worked. We set up our own organization. I was told to back off by everybody under the sun. I knew it was right.”
Schumer recalled that the Democratic leadership had summoned him at the time to try and persuade him not to go ahead with the bill,” he said. “I was wondering maybe I’m wrong. And I went on the airplane, and people stood up and gave me a standing ovation. It was a lesson to me. Don’t get caught up in the Washington world. Stick with the people.”
The 47-year-old graduate of Harvard Law School has lived that philosophy, refusing to move to Washington. “I’ve always lived home in New York. I try to live, for a congressman at least, a rather simple life.
“One of my great crusades I enjoyed was going against the cereal industry because I would do the shopping. Iris [Schumer’s wife] would write a list out and send me to the supermarkets. And I’d see cornflakes for $4, Raisin Bran $4.59, and I’d tell people when Frosted Mini-Wheats went to $6.03, I knew I had to do something. And I did. We launched a whole campaign and brought cereal prices down. But if I hadn’t done the shopping I never would have experienced it.”
It is this kind of determination and attention to detail that has brought the boy from Flatbush to the brink of his political career — the U.S. Senate.
Schumer, who now lives in Park Slope with his wife, a Giuliani administration official, and two daughters, Jessica, 13, and Allison, 9, got a quick start in politics. He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1974 at the age of 23 — his first real job out of college. By 1980, his drive and ambition brought him to Congress as a liberal Democrat at the start of the Reagan Revolution, representing the solid middle-class Brooklyn neighborhoods of Gravesend and Sheepshead Bay, among others. (After his election to the House, he was the target of federal and local investigations into allegations that he had improperly used his Assembly staff to work on his congressional campaign.)
Along the way, his zeal has earned good friends and good enemies. Among the latter is former Mayor Ed Koch, whose distaste for Schumer is so intense that the radio talk show host has cut several provocative ads for D’Amato sharply criticizing Schumer. The feud apparently goes back to when Schumer declined to endorse Koch for re-election against David Dinkins for mayor in 1989.
When D’Amato called Schumer a “putzhead” at a private Jewish breakfast recently, Koch laughed out loud and did not raise an objection, according to reports.
Among Schumer’s advocates is the man who will, barring an unforeseen circumstance, fill the representative’s seat next year, Brooklyn Democratic Councilman Anthony Weiner.
Weiner, who narrowly won the four-way Democratic primary in September to run for the Ninth Congressional District seat, began working for Schumer at the age of 20.
“He’s one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met,” Weiner said. Schumer is the oldest of Abe and Selma’s three children and grew up in the residential section of neatly kept private homes near Madison High School, where he achieved a perfect score on the college SATs.
His parents dreamed of a doctor, and were not pleased with his decision to shlep to Albany several times a month to work as a lowly paid entry-level assemblyman.
“It seemed ridiculous,” his mother said.
But her son has since made a reputation for himself in Congress as a hard-working legislator who helped pass tougher terrorism laws, the anti-gun Brady Bill and the 1994 crime bill that funded the addition of tens of thousands of new cops.
He has also become well known for his ability to capture media attention and raise campaign cash. (He’s received criticism for his fund-raising abilities even as he promises to support campaign finance reform.)
But the ugly exchanges in the current political war have surprised even some veteran political observers.
D’Amato has accused Schumer of failing to deliver for New York’s Jewish community. Schumer has called D’Amato a liar and criticized the Republican for manipulating Holocaust survivors.
“What I have found most interesting is the huge amounts of money being spent on the Jewish vote,” said one Jewish community leader.
Such a campaign, even Grandpa Jacob could not have imagined.