(Artvoice 18 January 2001)

The Artvoice Interview:
Senator Charles Schumer

by Bruce Jackson

Senator Charles E. Schumer made one of his frequent visits to the Buffalo area last Thursday. He came directly from the airport for a noon press conference at a Wetzel’s Mobil station in Cheektowaga, where he spoke about gas-guzzling SUVs and minivans. Such vehicles, he said, went into production after fuel-efficiency laws were passed 15 years ago, so manufacturers have been able to classify them as trucks, which meant they could go on the road with far lower efficiency standards than automobiles. Schumer, who has just been appointed to the Senate’s Energy Committee (he is already on the Judiciary Committee, Rules and Administration Committee, and the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee), said he was working on legislation that would reclassify such vehicles as autos, thereby forcing manufacturers to make them more energy efficient. Ford, which is about to make the shift voluntarily, estimates that the design changes—an electric starter and lighter body materials—will add about $50 to the cost of each vehicle. Schumer points out that reduced fuel costs from those two changes will save an SUV or minivan owner in this area about $250 per year. He spent the rest of the afternoon in Niagara Falls, where he has been working with other public officials in an attempt to rehabilitate that city’s ailing economy.

We met briefly in the NFTA conference room at Buffalo airport late in the afternoon, shortly before his plane back to Washington. I asked first about president-elect Bush’s most disputed cabinet nomination: former senator John Ashcroft for attorney general. Ashcroft opposes the United Nations, the National Endowment for the Arts, contraception, needle exchanges for drug addicts, and gays in government service. He backed a Constitutional amendment to ban abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. During his six years in the senate, Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition gave Ashcroft’s voting record a 100% rating. During last year’s presidential campaign, George W. Bush said if he were elected he’d work to bring people together; for most Democrats, the Ashcroft nomination indicated that Bush had abandoned that promise even before he moved to Washington. Senator Schumer said he was troubled by, but hadn’t come to a decision yet, on the Ashcroft nomination. The two men were scheduled to meet in Washington the next day to talk it over.

The Ashcroft Nomination

Ashcroft called me about an hour and a half after he had been selected. I was in Rochester. And he said, “Will you support me?” But I was in a meeting, I hadn’t heard of anything. I said, “Support you for what?” He said, “I’ve just been nominated by the president for attorney general.” I said, “Oh.” I said, “I can’t promise I will support you.” He said “Could you at least not take a position until we have a chance to sit down and talk.” And I said, “Surely, that sounds fair.” And we’re doing that tomorrow.

But let me tell you my general views. Generally, you want to give the president the benefit of the doubt on cabinet appointments. Much more so than with the Supreme Court or anything like that. Because it’s his cabinet.

With Ashcroft, however, there are two things that give you pause to think in terms of that benefit. One is that attorney general is the most sensitive position. A, because it deals with so many different groups, and B, because it’s not only just somebody who carries out the president’s views on issues but because it’s the chief law enforcement officer of the country.

So I have thought this through before talking to Ashcroft in terms of criteria, and I say to myself, I could not support anyone for attorney general, whether they be of the far left or the far right, if their ideology wouldn’t allow them to enforce the law of the land. And there’s a real question with Senator Ashcroft—on issues like choice, on issues like gun control, on issues like environment—whether his ideological views are so far over that he couldn’t enforce the law of the land.

That’s going to be the kind of questions that I intend to ask him at our meeting tomorrow and at the hearings publicly. You can’t just ask him, “Will you enforce the law of the land?”Of course he’ll say, “Yes.” But you can ask all sorts of specific questions.

For instance, on the issue of a woman’s right to choose, I wrote something called the FACE Law [Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994]. The FACE Law was supported by both pro-choice and pro-life legislators. It provides federal protection for people, for clinics when people would use violence or the threat of violence against them. It’s worked remarkably well. Right now, FACE is handled at a lower administrative level. If a clinic calls up and says they need help, the FBI moves in and tries to help, and others try to move in and help. Will Senator Ashcroft impose political constraints so that before they move they have to go to an associate attorney general to get permission? Will he disband the National Task Force on Violence Against Health Care Providers that Janet Reno set up two weeks after Dr. Slepian was murdered? Will he give the task force the funding that it needs?

These are the kinds of questions that you can ask that can flush that out.

Let us assume that I feel in my heart, mind and soul that he will fully enforce the law of the land. It’s a big If, but I haven’t talked to him yet and we haven’t had the hearings yet. Then the question is, can someone be ideologically so far over that you can’t support them? Normally, as I said, you give the president the benefit of the doubt, but, with Ashcroft, given the sensitivity of the attorney general position and given that he is, really, if you had to line up the hundred senators from left to right, he would be the one or two most far to the right, I have to think that one through.

There’s more to this position. The attorney general presumably is the office closest to the president in the naming of federal judges.


So the residual effect of this appointment—

True, but that bothers me less because it’s going to be the president who names the judges and he can have a hundred advisers. But as law enforcement officer, the attorney general does that on his own. In fact he’s NOT supposed to check with the president.

Are there any other—

One other. He has to be the chief advocate for the government. Take the issue of campaign finance reform. Would he fully enforce those laws? What kind of solicitor general would he pick in terms of arguing those is what I mean, not would he enforce them.

As a practical matter, the Senate has rejected only one of its own. John Tower.

And he had other considerations, not just ideological.

He had those external matters of women and booze, which made it easy, in a way, to deal with him.


There are no such matters in the case of—

No, but there were two cases in the past, not where they rejected one of their own—one where Democrats, one where Republicans rejected someone purely for ideological reasons. Bork—now there’s more of a rationale for that because he was going to be a Supreme Court justice. But the Republicans rejected Bill Lann Lee for assistant attorney general for civil rights purely on ideological grounds. [When the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee refused to approve Clinton’s nomination of Lee, Clinton put him in the position on an acting basis. In August 2000, Clinton appointed him to it without the “acting” modifier, using the device of a recess appointment, just as he recently appointed Roger Gregory, a black Virginia lawyer, to the Fourth Circuit. Until Clinton did that, the Fourth Circuit was the only remaining unintegrated Federal Circuit Court. North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms had previously blocked three other black nominees to that position.]

It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out.

Yes, it is. I think it’s an uphill fight for him to be rejected because he’ll have almost every Republican, maybe with one or two exceptions, supporting him. And a number of Democrats, including some very liberal Democrats, like Wellstone and Feingold, have said their strong inclination is to vote for him because of senatorial courtesy.

I don’t put as much stock in senatorial courtesy. I do want to give the president the benefit of the doubt. But because someone is a senator, you may know them better, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they ought to be chosen.

The Proposed Moratorium on Capital Punishment

You mentioned Paul Wellstone. He is one of the sponsors of the Federal moratorium on capital punishment.

Right. It’s Feingold’s bill.

Do you have a position on that?

I have not supported the moratorium. I believe in capital punishment. I believe it should be used in limited ways. I don’t think it’s a panacea. But there are certain times when the ultimate punishment is called for. For me, it’s a moral stand. I believe that we should provide counsel. The number of people who have been wrongly executed, the vast majority have had terrible counsel at the lower levels. I’m for providing much more in terms of counsel, and I’m for DNA testing to vindicate people.

When the criminal justice system, even in a capital crime, is not perfect, it doesn’t mean you stop it. I want to make it as perfect as possible. But I think most of the people calling for the moratorium are ideologically opposed to capital punishment.


Which I’m not.

Energy Supply and Demand

When I saw you this morning, you were talking about fuel use. The Bush administration, from what I’ve seen thus far, talks about getting new sources of energy, exploring the Alaskan north. I haven’t heard anything out of them about changing consumption, reducing demand.

We’re going to have to meet each other halfway on energy. We are on the verge of an energy crisis. Demand is going up, supply is flat. Logic says, reduce demand and increase supply, but Washington has been deadlocked because Democrats say “reduce demand” and Republicans say “increase supply.”

I think there can be some compromises. First, I would say any package that doesn’t emphasize conservation and alternative fuel sources is at best incomplete, and also not likely to pass. The thing I called for today is the single thing you could do on either demand or supply side to help reduce the costs of home heating oil, of gasoline, et cetera.

I think on the supply side we’ve made real advances. And while I don’t consider opening up the Alaska wilderness area, I would say on some federal lands, particularly in the lower 48 states and some offshore areas, you can do some kinds of drilling, as long as they’re done in a really environmentally sensitive way. I think I’ve talked to environmentalists who agree with that. Now we can reexamine that and open that up.

At the same time, I think we should look at alternative energy sources—not just wind and solar, but things like fuel cells, which produce electricity in a very pro-environment way and a very economical way, tax credits for Star-smart appliances which use electricity. You know, we did a great job in the late 70s, early 80s, and it was mainly on the demand side. And we should do that again.

This bill you’re introducing would change the classification of SUVs—

—and minivans to cars rather than trucks, for mileage purposes.

And thereby force them to a higher standard.


The Peace Bridge

Your office was instrumental twice in bringing the Detroit bridge group to Buffalo. Could you tell me how that came about and whether you’re in contact now?

I believe in exploring every alternative. These guys from Detroit said “We can build a signature bridge for less in a more timely way, and we’ve done it in Detroit.” So I figured, let the people hear them.

Frankly, I was somewhat disappointed in their presentation. They didn’t have all the specifics worked out. And I’ve said to them, “When you’re ready to come back with more specifics as to how this gets done, I’m all ears.” They haven’t yet. Should they come back with more details on how they’re going to get this done, I’m open to it.

The major objection, supposedly, to the signature bridge, which I’ve supported, has always been it will be more expensive and take too much time. If you take away those two objections, why wouldn’t everybody want a signature bridge rather than a twin span?

I still say a signature bridge is a great opportunity for Buffalo and western New York that ought not to be dismissed cavalierly or because there’s some other alternative.

I think the new Peace Bridge Authority is showing a little more flexibility than the old one, and I think that’s a good sign. Getting this environmental impact study done, no matter what happens, makes sense.

It does. And they seem to be serious about doing it.

Yes. That’s a change. The old attitude seemed to be, “My way or no way.” And the new attitude seems to be, “I prefer my way but I’m willing to take a few steps in your direction.”

Niagara Falls

You just came back from Niagara Falls.

Yes. It was great.

What’s going on there?

What I’m trying to do there, Bruce, is this. You go to the American side of the Falls and you could almost cry—at the presentation of the Falls, as well at what’s happened to downtown Niagara Falls. There have always been plans but there’s never been unity in the community and there’s never been the federal, state and local governments all cooperating, which it would take.

Originally, I thought maybe we should make it a federal park, a national park. But when I talked to the people in Niagara Falls, there was some dubiousness about that for two reasons. One, the state wouldn’t want it. The state has neglected Niagara Falls in the past, but I think there’s a new attitude and that’s terrific. And two, the community is worried that when you bring a national park to a highly urban area, the Park Service does what it wants and there’s no community input.

A fellow named Jim Pepper, from the National Park Service, suggested an alternative called a National Heritage Partnership. It’s been done in Lowell, Massachusetts, and a few other places, where there is a federal statute and there’s federal interest, but it is not part of the National Park Service, and it’s governed by a board consisting of federal, state, and local, as well as private representatives. I think that’s a great idea.

When the governor then called for a Times Square-type development corporation to deal with downtown Niagara Falls, it dovetailed perfectly because we could have our national heritage partnership deal with the park and the Falls, and they could have the Times Square thing be right next door in downtown.  We’d link up together and figure out how to make it work together.

So today I asked for suggestions who should be on a panel to determine what plan we should have for Niagara Falls. Senators Byron Brown and George Marziarz will be on it, Assembly member Francine DelMonte, the new Assembly member there, as well as people from the governor’s office and private citizens. We’ll figure out how to put it together. So many people wanted to be on that we may have a larger group and then a smaller executive committee, one to give advice and the other to sort of make it happen. You can’t have fifty people meeting all the time.

What was heartening was, this was on short notice but the room had over 100 people with enthusiasm, with suggestions. You go drive down downtown, you think the whole place is down and out. You sat at this city hall meeting, you said, “It’s alive and filled with hope and enthusiasm to get something done.” So if for the first time, within a year or so—maybe it’ll take a little longer, but that’s the goal—we can produce a comprehensive plan as to what should happen with federal, state and local government signing off and the private people in the area agreeing, we could get something done. That’s the goal.


New York just lost two representative in the House. What are the implications of that for the state and for this area?

For the state, we lose some clout in the House. Hopefully, some of it can be made up for: we’re gaining in seniority. We were wiped out a while ago, all the old timers left, and now we’re building seniority again. And in working together. The delegation works better together than it has.

For western New York, which has lost population, it’ll be a real struggle to hold on to all the representatives. I think it can, because Lafalce and Quinn and Reynolds—I may not agree with some of them on everything—but they are respected around and I think that can happen. The big question is what will happen with that southern tier district. Amo Houghton, who is beloved in the Congress, said he wants to stay to keep that district. Whether that falls out that way, I don’t know.

The Next New York Gubernatorial Election

Any thought on McCall and possible opponents in the next gubernatorial—

No. It’s a while away. I’d love to avoid a primary. But I don’t think a primary has to be divisive if it happens, just by it happening. When I ran against Geraldine Ferraro and Mark Green in the primary, I said I wasn’t going to attack either of my opponents. Ferraro, to her credit, didn’t either. Green did a little bit, but not too much. And so the day after the primary, Ferraro and Green were with me, saying “We’re for Schumer.” If that happens, it doesn’t hurt. But if it gets to be an attack-divisive thing, it’s bad news.

The Republican Lock

We’ve now got the Republicans controlling all three bases in Washington. What difference is that going to make?

Unfortunately, I think it will make a difference. When we were stymied in the Senate because Trent Lott wouldn’t let something happen, we could always go to the administration and try to work things out. Now, you can’t go to the administration, or you may not be able to. But we’re 50-50 in the Senate. The question is, are we going have to revert to an opposition role with a 50-50 Senate? And with the election saying to George W. Bush as well as the Congress “Work together in a bipartisan way”— because that’s clearly what the American people said— will we work in a bipartisan way? Will George Bush reach us and meet us halfway? Which I think a majority of my party would like to do.

If not, we can clearly tie things up. But that’s not a fulfilling role. I’d rather—I am a legislator, and I’d rather get half a loaf and get something done than just make a whole lot of speeches.

So I can’t tell you where George Bush is headed, but hopefully, he will want to compromise. I think that’s his instinct. But I think there are lots of people from the right who are around him who don’t want him to do it, and I don’t know where the chips will fall.

Trent Lott was saber-rattling just a few days ago—

—on the Ashcroft hearings. And I had an answer for him. I basically said, “Look, asking legitimate questions about a nominee is part of our responsibility. It’s not just an option. That’s what we’re supposed to do.” If Trent Lott’s view of bipartisanship is they propose and we say “yes,” it’s not going to happen.

[The Friday meeting between Senator Schumer and attorney general designate John Ashcroft apparently did not go as Mr. Ashcroft hoped. He emerged from the 75-minute session looking grim, and he refused to look at or talk to any of the reporters waiting in the corridor. Later, Senator Schumer said he still had troubling questions about the nomination, some of which might be answered in the Senate’s Justice Committee hearings scheduled for this week.]

 copyright 2000 Bruce Jackson