Positively American: How the Democrats Can Win in 2008

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9781594868139: Positively American: How the Democrats Can Win in 2008
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After his landslide reelection in 2004, by the largest margin in New York State history, Senator Chuck Schumer gained national recognition during the mid-term elections as the principal architect of the Democrats' successful effort to win back the Senate. Set to appear in paperback, with a timely new chapter, as we approach the next presidential election, Positively American presents Senator Schumer's 10-point plan for capturing the middle class vote and moving his party back into the majority now and in the future. Addressing such vital issues as taxes, education, health, the energy crisis, and national security, Senator Schumer explains how his party can accomplish this without abandoning their traditional principles and concern for the vulnerable in society.

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About the Author:

CHUCK SCHUMER was elected to the New York State Assembly at age 23—making him one of the youngest members since Theodore Roosevelt—and to Congress at 29. In 1998 he became New York's junior senator, and he now holds the senior position. He lives in Brooklyn

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER 1

VICTORY?

ELECTION DAY IS TORTURE. You've finished crafting the message, cutting the ads, knocking on doors and reading the polls. Everything that you can do is done. But everything that really matters is yet to happen.

It's all over, as they say, but the voting.

On election night 2006, I was in a suite on the eleventh floor of the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill with a small group of staff, friends and family. While we waited, I paced the room and picked at cold calamari and oversized cookies. Having nothing to do brings out the worst in me--I get antsy, irritable and hungry.

I was not on any ballot this year. But the election was as personally important to me as any I'd ever lived through. I was the senator in charge of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the political organization responsible for all the Democratic Senate races. Two years earlier, I had taken the job because I worried that if we lost three more Senate seats, beyond the forty-five that we held, there would be no check on the Bush administration's policies, which were doing so much damage to the country I love. For two years, I had been obsessed with preparing for this election. I had recruited candidates. I had raised money. I had approved senior staffs. And I had become friends with many of the Senate hopefuls whose fates were being decided on that night.

Now, waiting for the first returns--the polls had closed in Virginia and Ohio less than an hour earlier--I knew that Democrats were, amazingly enough, on the edge of actually taking back the Senate majority. To do it, we had to pick up six of eight vulnerable Republican seats and hold on to every Democratic seat, including six tough ones. Supposedly, during a card game on Air Force One a few weeks before election day, President Bush had said that for Democrats to take back the Senate, "Schumer would need to pull an inside straight."

I was still waiting to see the cards.

For the four hundredth time that day, I called J. B. Poersch, executive director of the DSCC, for an update on the exit polls--voter information gathered on behalf of the networks and craved by campaign staffs, which are ravenous for any morsel of data.

"How's it look?" I asked as he picked up before it even rang.

"Mostly good."

"How about the big four?" These were four close states--Missouri, Montana, Tennessee and Virginia--where we would need three wins.

"Missouri's okay. Montana's tighter." In Missouri, we had Claire McCaskill, the popular state treasurer who had almost won the governorship two years earlier. In Montana, Jon Tester, a lifelong farmer with a quarter-inch crew cut and a keg for a belly, was our candidate. Both were trying to unseat Republican incumbents.

"Tennessee?"

"Not so good."

"Virginia?"

"The first precincts are reporting."

"And?"

"I don't know."

Suddenly, every BlackBerry in the room was buzzing.

"Chuck!" three aides yelled at once. "They're calling Ohio for Brown!"

Phil Singer, the DSCC's communications director--and the best in the business--came running into the room. "They're calling Ohio--"

"I know."

A staffer handed me a cell phone. "Sherrod Brown," she mouthed.

"Call you back, J.B." I said, pulling one phone from my right ear and putting another to my left. "Sherrod! You ran a great race! See you in the Senate." Sherrod Brown had beaten incumbent Mike DeWine by running an energetic populist campaign in Ohio--a state that, two years after making the difference for Bush, had turned bluer than a clear sky.

One down. Five to go.

Again, the room erupted in BlackBerry buzz.

"Chuck," everyone yelled, "they're calling . . . " Voices were lost in a jumble.

"Pennsylvania for Casey!" screamed half the room.

"And New Jersey for Menendez!" screamed the other half.

Bob Casey, pro-life and pro-gun, had unified the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and trounced the ultra-conservative Senator Rick Santorum. Bob Menendez, who had been appointed to his seat by New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine less than a year earlier, had overcome a barrage of nasty attacks to notch a solid win. They represented one pickup, in Pennsylvania, and one save, in New Jersey.

A minute later, two cell phones were thrust at me. "Bob!" I cheered. "Congratulations!"

Two down, four to go.

On the other side of the hotel room, an aide was monitoring Virginia's official returns on the Web between writing lines for that night's speech. I leaned over his shoulder. "How's Virginia?"

"Webb's down eight thousand. But less than half of precincts are in."

I looked at my watch--a little past eight. It was going to be a long night. The last time I had lived through an election night this long was during my first campaign, for the New York State Assembly, when I was twenty-three years old.

In 1974, I graduated from Harvard Law School. After the ceremony, as my parents drove me back to Brooklyn, I broke the news to them: I wasn't going to accept the job as an associate at the prestigious Manhattan law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison for $400 a week--which, to us at least, seemed an enormous sum. Instead, I was going to run for the Assembly, right in the district where I grew up.

The Forty-Fifth Assembly District covered a row of middle-class neighborhoods extending from the Atlantic Ocean straight up into southern Brooklyn--Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay, Midwood and Kings Highway, where I was raised. My parents didn't want me to run. They had struggled to send me to college and hoped more than anything that I would earn a "comfortable living." My mother kept telling me to give up the silly dream of being a politician and accept my fate as a corporate lawyer--something secure and respectable.

I would have none of it. My mind was set on elective office. After seven years at Harvard, I wanted to come home to Brooklyn and go into public service. There was no point in arguing; I was sure I wanted to serve my neighborhood as an elected official. I may only have been twenty-three years old, but the seeds that led to my decision had been planted many years earlier.

In 1964, when I was fourteen, I had to get a summer job. I ran a mimeograph machine for a Madison High School teacher who had come up with a new idea for a small business: He would prepare students for the SATs. The teacher's name was Stanley Kaplan and the company was Kaplan, Inc. Less than twenty years after I graduated from Madison, he became a multimillionaire when he sold his business to the Washington Post Company. God bless America!

By nine each morning during that summer, I would be at Kaplan's place, in a windowless three-foot-by-three-foot room that reeked of ink and ozone, running the mimeo machines. Around 9:05, I'd be going gangbusters; at 9:10, I'd check my watch. I'd check again at 9:15, 9:20, 9:30--by a quarter of ten I'd be sure it was four in the afternoon.

By ten, I'd be out of my mind with boredom, thinking of all my friends at the beach, playing basketball and trying to pick up girls. I didn't know how I would survive until the end of the day, much less for the whole summer. All day, every day, from ten o'clock until the end of work, I swore to myself that I would never choose a career where I'd be bored.

After Madison, I got into Harvard (in part because of those endless hours spent staring at SAT prep material spinning around the mimeo drum). In those days very few people from places like Madison went to Harvard. Sixty percent of the freshman class were from private schools, most of the rest were from wealthy suburban school districts. I was scared--how would I fit in? The one Madison guy who had gone to Harvard ahead of me suggested that I try out for the freshman basketball team: I'd make the team because they were lousy, and I'd make friends. It was to be a social, not an athletic, endeavor.

So I went to tryouts. We each had little numbers clipped to our T-shirts as we waited in the Harvard gym.

"Number twenty-seven!" the coach called.

"Yes, sir," I answered.

"You're Schumer?"

"Yes, sir."

"You went to Madison?"

"Yes, sir."

"You play forward?"

"Yes, sir."

"How tall you are?

"Six-one, sir."

"Can you dribble?"

"Not very well, sir."

"Go home."

He moved on to the next kid without seeing me touch a single basketball.

I went back to my dorm room without having made a single friend. I sat down to write a letter to my parents. I told them I was already a flop here at Harvard; I should have gone to Brooklyn College.

That night someone from the Harvard Young Democrats knocked on my door. "How would you like to work on the presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy?"

I didn't have a political bone in my body. "Why not?" I sighed, throwing up my hands. "Who's Senator Eugene McCarthy?"

I spent much of the next several months in New Hampshire, knocking on doors for the McCarthy campaign. It was the most exhilarating feeling I had ever experienced: being part of this group, students and others who had never thought they had any power, all working together to stop a war that was unjust and defeat President Lyndon Baines Johnson, the most powerful man on earth.

Almost immediately, I caught the bug. To me, politics was the place where ideas and people met. I was elated to discover that it was possible to do good in the world--that a group of ragtag amateurs, fueled by students upset over the war, could truly change the course of history. The system that we had read about in textbooks really worked--you could actually make the world a better place!

By March, when McCarthy came close enough in New Hampshire to convince Johnson not to run for reelection, I had decided I wouldn't be an organic chemist, as I had planned, but would major in Social Studies and go to law school. I figured I had to be a lawyer to make a living, but politics, my true love, would be my avocation.

I was at Harvard for seven years, through undergrad and law school. I loved it. But I always identified more with Madison High School than with Harvard University. If anything, I felt closer to Brooklyn after I got to Cambridge. Up there, where there weren't that many people like me, I was the guy from Brooklyn. And that felt right. While I relished the intellectual challenges at school, I quickly realized that I was more at home, at home.

I had grown up in a middle-class household in a middle-class neighborhood. My father was an exterminator, my mother volunteered in the community. My block, East Twenty-Seventh Street, was a mixture of firefighters and cops, salesmen and teachers, small businessmen and homemakers. We were first-, second- and third-generation Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants. My parents and my friends' parents worked hard. They cared for their families. They were honest, patriotic, decent and, all too often, under enormous strain. Life was good, but it was also tough.

As I was growing up, the government was distant from our daily lives, but we knew it was always there, behind the scenes. It was like a benevolent patriarch watching over us, protecting us from a distance; it was there when things went wrong. It provided security--for retirement, for safety, for health. And it represented a positive, moral force. When it became clear, in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, that President Johnson had lied to the American people, I was depressed for two weeks. We were raised to have such trust in government leaders that learning they had lied for political gain was something new and absolutely devastating.

In Brooklyn, we could survive without the government, but we knew that at its best, it sure could help. Whether it was the safety offered to us kids by a caring police officer or the comfort our parents got in knowing that Social Security would be there when they retired--the government mattered and it was a good thing.

Now, after working for seven years at school and working in campaigns all over the Northeast, I wanted to be part of it. At home. Not as an avocation, as I had intially thought after that McCarthy campaign, but as my life's work--helping make things a little better for my parents, my friends' parents and all the families like them. I believed in them and wanted to serve them. To me, the life of a corporate lawyer seemed hardly different from running a mimeo; government was where I wanted to be.

Three aspects of public service swept me up in a tide that neither my parents nor I had a chance of fighting against: The excitement, which I had sought since my days in the mimeo room; the opportunity to do good, which I had experienced with the Young Democrats; and the chance to work for the people I most identified with, which is what I had craved doing while I was away at school.

My parents and I argued all the way to Brooklyn. When we got there, I stayed in the race.

My first election night, in September 1974, was probably the hardest of my career. When the polls closed, I had no idea what was going to happen--in part because my mother had told all her friends to vote against me!

Throughout my next thirty years in elective office, I was never again personally involved in a campaign in which I did not know the outcome by the time the polls closed.

Until 2006.

"How's it look?" I was on the phone with J.B. again.

"Missouri's good. Montana should be. Rhode Island's a win."

In Rhode Island, the Democratic candidate Sheldon Whitehouse was proving that even the most moderate Republican in the Senate, Lincoln Chafee, could not survive Bush's unpopularity. If Missouri, Montana and Rhode Island held, that would be three more pickups.

"Tennessee and Virginia?" We would still need one of them to take the majority.

"I don't think Ford can pull it off." Harold Ford, a moderate Democrat and a brilliant candidate, who would be the first African-American senator elected in the South since Reconstruction. We had put everything we could into the contest, but he had been behind in polls for a couple of weeks.

"Virginia's not so good either," J.B. continued. Incumbent Republican George Allen, who only months before was considered a possible Republican presidential candidate, was holding on for dear life after a series of incidents that cast him as racially insensitive. The challenger, Jim Webb, was a former Republican and Reagan administration official who had spent his life working with the military. "It's close, but I don't think Webb can do it."

I hung up and sat down heavily on the couch. Wolf Blitzer on CNN slid Rhode Island into our column. The pundits weren't yet talking about it, but I knew that the whole night would come down to one state. "Virginia!" I called out, to no one in particular.

"Webb's down eleven thousand," someone answered. "Can we go over your speech?"

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