Is Schumer the most powerful politician in the United States?

A long time ago when Al D’Amato’s brother, Armand, beat a criminal rap, George Pataki got elected governor with D’Amato’s backing, and D’Amato won a new term as U.S. Senator, D’Amato went around bragging that he had “…won the trifecta.”

Later, Chuck Schumer took on D’Amato and beat him and now Schumer has won the Trifecta himself. He is thought to have gotten Kirsten Gillibrand selected by David Paterson to be U.S. senator (costing Paterson a lot of popularity) and one writer — me — has said that “Chuck Schumer is now the only senator with two votes.” Now it looks like Schumer got the president of the United States to call Congressman Steve Israel who would have defeated Gillibrand in a primary and ask him to stay out of the race. Israel took the unusual step of announcing that the president had asked him to stay out. Finally, Chuck has just had his staff counsel named U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, probably the most powerful in the United States.

Speaking of power, raw naked power, it would appear that Chuck Schumer may be the most powerful politician in the United States. After all, he is generally credited with having delivered the U.S. Senate into the hands of the Democrats. The party owes him a lot and the president owes him a lot. In short, Chuck is in the kind of position that Big Al D’Amato was once in.

So let’s take a look and see whether this is good for the people and for democracy. Primaries were invented to give people a choice. When the country passed a constitutional amendment providing for the direct election of senators and getting that choice out of the hands of the cigar smoking back room boys, it was a good thing for democracy. When a president makes a telephone call and tells a fine candidate to get out of the race, it is decidedly not a good thing, especially when it would appear that Israel was the leading candidate to get to the Senate. I can only assume that had Chuck himself made the call asking Israel to drop out, he might have been met with a firm “no.” One can only wonder if, with Chuck whispering in his ear, President Obama called the others whose names have been mentioned, like Carolyn Maloney and Carolyn McCarthy. They are both doing quite nicely in pollsters’ match ups against Ms. Gillibrand.

I knew a guy once who desperately didn’t want to go to Vietnam to oversee what were clearly going to be corrupt elections. He was a professor at Rutgers and Rutgers was under siege from all those opposed to the war. The guy, my boss, called me up in the middle of the night and said that President Johnson had just called him. This professor had a huge, well paying job (on the side) with the federal government. He asked me what to do and I told him I knew he would do it. As he explained it, “When the president of the United States calls you on the phone and asks you to do something it is very hard to say no.” Exactly. Apparently Barack Obama thinks this trade is worth it. Maybe it is important to keep the powerful Chuck Schumer happy.

Chuck once called and asked if he could come to the Linda Norris Auditorium in Albany to announce that he would vote for the war in Iraq. I was delighted to agree to host him, even though I was certainly opposed to the war. It was a great thing for the public radio stations I run, but because I wanted to keep things from degenerating, I announced we would have audience members write their questions on cards and I would read the cards to the senator. When I came into the hall, an older man with a balding head and a graying pony tail was yelling at a staff member that he “…didn’t care who I was and he was going to stand up and have it out with the $%^&^*.”

I asked him to lower his voice and told him I expected him to play by the rules, with which the guy standing next to him threw a cup of hot coffee at my head. Someone called the police, who asked if I wanted to press charges. I declined. But the best part came when Chuck walked into the hall through the back entrance and asked in a loud voice, “Where’s the peacenik who threw the hot coffee at Chartock?” That was Chuck at his funniest and his best. Now I think the situation may be becoming more serious.

Originally Published by Alan Chartock in the Legislative Gazette, 5/22/09

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