Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wants you to know he’s a regular kind of guy — the sort of average Joe who’s not above staying at Motel 6, lives in a group house on Capitol Hill and prefers the Chinese restaurant Hunan Dynasty on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast to tony Georgetown bistros.
In fact, Schumer likes Hunan so much that not long after fellow New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s election to the Senate, he invited her there to “open her up to my world of cheap Chinese takeout, overly bright lighting and tropical fish decor.”
At the end of the meal — during which Clinton endured constant gawking and camera flashes — the owner sent over a free almond cookie, as was his practice. “Hillary politely refused,” while he accepted, Schumer writes in his new book, “Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time.” “For all I knew, she might rather eat a Happy Meal than dine on filet mignon, but at upscale restaurants she was a whole lot more likely to be left alone while at the Hunan Dynasty she was mobbed by restaurant staff. … our realities are very different.”
Still, the former first lady and presidential hopeful (with whom Schumer has had some ups and downs) doesn’t appear to be holding the experience against Schumer. Next Tuesday evening, she’ll serve as honorary host of a book party for him at Hunan.
Schumer’s tome, which hits bookstore shelves this week, is part memoir, part policy prescription. The first half traces Schumer’s early life and rise in elective politics from the New York Assembly to the Democratic Senate leadership (he’s Democratic Caucus vice chairman and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman), while the second half outlines his “50 percent solution” to improve everything from illegal immigration to childhood obesity.
It’s all aimed at helping the Democratic Party recapture the middle class, which Schumer believes has been overlooked in favor of special interest groups.
Schumer, who prides himself on being in tune with this demographic, even has gone so far as to create the fictitious couple Joe and Eileen Bailey, through whose eyes he filters his policy decisions. The middle-class Baileys, who live in the Long Island suburbs, are centrists who voted for both Reagan and Clinton and make a combined $75,000 a year. He’s in insurance, while she is an administrative assistant for a family physician. They worry about cultural immorality, flag-burning, corporate malfeasance and how to pay for their kids’ college.
Since first inventing the Baileys about 15 years ago, Schumer says he has continued to “talk to them regularly. One of my press people once told the press that I have imaginary friends.” (The Baileys’ details can sometimes vary, however. A transcript of an American Prospect breakfast last July quotes him as saying: “I have fictional people in my head. They’re Joe and Eileen O’Reilly. … He’s an insurance salesman who makes 50,000 bucks a year; she works part-time in the schools, makes 20,000 bucks a year.”)
The Baileys, Schumer asserts, also are behind his often-mocked practice of holding Sunday press conferences, which, he writes, is “my chance to talk to the Baileys about the things they cared about most.”
Schumer’s media-friendly reputation once led former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) to quip that “the most dangerous place in Washington is between Charles Schumer and a television camera,” but the Senior Senator from New York doesn’t have any plans to change his style.
In addition to excerpting his book in the current issue of Newsweek, he has an ambitious schedule of TV appearances planned to coincide with the publication, including upcoming segments on “The Today Show,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “Charlie Rose” and even “Martha.”
The release is timed in part to serve as an “alternative” to some of the policies that President Bush will outline in tonight’s State of the Union address, Schumer says. Among his proposals, Schumer would like to reduce abortion, children’s access to Internet pornography and U.S. dependence on foreign oil — all by 50 percent. Alternately, he would increase by 50 percent math scores and the U.S. ability to fight terrorism.
Schumer says he chose the 50 percent benchmark because he believes Americans would disregard as “political bull” proposals that lacked a concrete figure by which to measure success.
Schumer also says he didn’t want the book (which he wrote with the help of Yale graduate Daniel Squadron) to come out until after the elections so that Democratic candidates in Michigan, for instance, wouldn’t have to answer questions about his proposals to “double CAFE standards.”
In the future, “I hope that Democratic candidates for House, Senate or even president can pick up some of these ideas,” Schumer says.
Schumer also addresses his decision to forgo a run for New York governor and stay in the Senate, asserting that he would have opted against a gubernatorial bid last cycle even if then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hadn’t offered him a slot on the Senate Finance Committee or the chairmanship of the DSCC just after the 2004 elections.
Of Reid, whom Schumer refers to as one of his best friends, he writes: “He is soft-spoken and polite and is a deeply religious Mormon. He will also kneecap you if you cross him.”
Looking ahead, Schumer asserts that Democrats must find an answer to the eight words that he believes were critical to Republicans’ success in 2004: “War in Iraq. Cut Taxes. No Gay Marriage.”
So what should these be?
That has yet to be determined, Schumer concedes, though he invites readers to contribute their ideas at www.positivelyamericanbook.com. “It’s very hard to come to those eight words. This book tries to get us moving in that direction.”
Schumer will discuss and sign copies of “Positively American” at 7 p.m. on Feb. 7 at Politics and Prose, located at 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.