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In WAMC Interview, Schumer Discusses Filibuster, Democratic Agenda, Cuomo, Israel, Trump, More

Senator Charles Schumer calls on USDA to continue the Honey Bee Colony Survey
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Senator Charles Schumer calls on USDA to continue the Honey Bee Colony Survey

On Friday afternoon, WAMC's Alan Chartock spoke with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer on the Congressional Corner. Here is the transcript of their interview. 

I know you're adverse to titles, but that's quite a title Majority Leader, very few people in history.

I'm proud of it that I am the first Majority Leader ever from New York. So I am proud of that. But as I mentioned to you, I still am a Brooklynite, everyone calls you leader, Majority Leader. I say, call me Chuck.

Just call me Chuck. OK. You know, we spoke in last October before the election and before the Georgia Senate runoffs made you Majority Leader. Is being in power with a Democrat in the White House everything you expected?

Yeah, look, it's so much better than having Trump in the White House. He was the most despicable president I have ever, I think, ever in American history. And it's much better than having McConnell as leader who just threw everything into the legislative graveyard. Is it easy with 50 votes? No. I tell people, Alan, this is the hardest job I've ever had. But I have more energy and more enthusiasm for it than any job I've ever had. Because it's so darn important. There's so much to do.

It's amazing that you even found time to talk to us today, really, because I know how busy you are. So, you're shepherding, for example, through the Endless Frontier Act, which is a supposedly bipartisan effort to counter China's influence. What does it do? And what do you back?

OK, certainly we want to make sure China doesn't become the number one research center and economy center in the world, but we're doing it because this is the way to create millions of good paying long term jobs in America. Alan when we have invested in science and in research, we create lots of jobs. Just let me give you one example, we invested in NSF, we invested in DARPA, the internet and so much else was developed there. And we became far and away the leading tech economic power in the world. And it's created tens of millions of good paying jobs. While there are so many cutting edge areas in research right now that we are not investing in anything. China is, Korea is, Germany is. And if they invest heavily, get several steps ahead of us, they will become the leading economic power of the world and millions and millions of good paying jobs for Americans and for their kids will no longer occur here. So I feel this is an imperative. We invest in science and in research and innovation. It makes a huge, huge difference. And you know, the Capital Region has proved that in a lot of ways even upstate New York. But you look at our investment in nanotechnology, you look at our investment in semiconductors, and it's created thousands and thousands of jobs, good paying jobs in the Capital Region, given us a lot of hopes for the future.

Chuck, the governor of New York, obviously, is having his problems and a bunch of investigations going on. Have you assiduously stayed out of that one? Or do you have any thoughts?

Well, I put out a statement a few months ago, I stand by that statement, but that's not my focus. My focus is in Washington and getting things done for New York.

Do you still talk to the governor? I mean, I know that you had some problems with his remaining there. But do you still talk with him?

Yeah our offices communicate on whole lots of issues that affected New York all the time.

Is an office communicating the same as an individual communicating?

Well, look, I don't get into the individual conversations I've had with specific individuals. I don't know. I think we're working closely to help New York wherever we can.

So following up on that, I'm sure you want me to…personal communications. Chuck, what about your personal communications with Mitch? I think all of us would like to be in the room or around you, when those conversations are going on. What are they like? Can you bring us in?

Well, he's you know, he's not the most talkative of fellows. But when we have to come together and get things done, we do. You know, he wanted a hold up our original organizing resolution. And he had made certain demands, we said no, but we talked about it and worked it through. We did come up with a bipartisan proposal on impeachment. The previous proposals had not been, when he was in charge, had not been bipartisan. So we talked together when we can and look, this is a general not just with Mitch. I want to work in a bipartisan way with Republicans whenever we can. But I do believe we need big bold action, to deal with the many problems that have been neglected for so long. Whether they be climate or economic inequality, racial justice, improving our democracy. And so I work with them when we can, but we try to go forward when we can. That’s what happened with the ARP bill, the most amazing thing about the ARP bill, our budget, it was that, you know, which has gotten, you know, it's one of the most significant, most comprehensive pieces of progressive legislation in decades, and I was proud to play a major role in crafting it and getting it done. But 60% of Republican voters liked it. They liked getting the vaccines early, they liked getting the checks, they liked help for the restaurants, they liked help for our businesses, they liked the vaccines getting into people's arms, money for the schools, money for our mass transit, you name it, they liked it. But no republican senator or congressman voted for it. And I believe and I believe this applies to McConnell as well, that Donald Trump has a great deal of say, on what the republican elected officials do through a variety of means. And it impedes progress.

Yeah, but I often wonder, since they come from what I call the land-of-no, and they're scared to death of Trump, how they can look in a mirror? Is that a good question?

Well, yes, and you know, at what you've seen is that four of them, that's a significant number already, have said they're not running again. And I think these are, you know, this is my own speculation, they don't confide in me their exact reasons for stepping down. But I'll bet if you could read their minds, they'd say, “Look, I don't like Trump. But I can't oppose him, or the only way I oppose him a risk to my political career, I'm not going to continue.” And you know, Lamar Alexander was one of my close friends last year left. This year, you have Burr and Blunt and Toomey, and Portman knows who else. So, you know, the Republican Party, I think would be a lot better off if Trump didn't dominate it. So, and Trump is just entirely negative. He doesn't want Joe Biden to succeed. That's the kind of man he is pure ego, doesn't really care about the substance. He doesn't care about people other than himself. And he but he has them, he has the Republican Party tightly under control right now.

So how dangerous was he or is he? He's talking about taking office without an election. He wants to be restored as president, he keeps saying ridiculous things like that. That sounds to me like where democracies fail.

I agree. Our democracy. Donald Trump and his allies who have fostered this big lie, which is that he really won the election, but it was stolen from him. That is dangerous to our democracy, Alan, because if people know where you can be Democrat, Republican, the great thing about this country for centuries has been you know, voters line up on the cold November evening and quiet dignity, everyone goes into the polling place, votes for who they want, the next morning, we abide by the results. It's the first time I can remember there's a concerted effort to create lies about those results, which reduces people's faith in democracy. And that's a very dangerous thing. And that's why that it was so appalling that we couldn't even get 10 Republican votes to vote for the Commission, the January 6th Commission to find out exactly what happened in this insurrection, to find out who was behind it, who did what, we did it in a totally bipartisan way. In other words, it was half Democrats, half Republicans on the commission, to have staff or subpoena power you need support of both parties. Kevin McCarthy, when Speaker Pelosi went to him, made a lot of the suggestions that she incorporated in the bill. In fact, many Democrats thought given were in the majority of gave too much to the Republicans. But even with all of that, and the necessity for investigating what went on, you could not get the 10 Republican votes needed to keep it going.

The first, the very first, Majority Leader in the United States Senate from New York. That's got to go to your head, no?

I you know, I try to, you know, one of the things I do, I keep in touch with people, I, I've still visiting the 62 counties every year last year with COVID I visited all 62. I think we're up to number 40. This year already, I still try to be visible wherever I can. During COVID, I was on a whole lot of zooms. In fact, I tell when I go on a zoom with 40 or 50 people I say to them, I was at more Easter service, even though I'm Jewish, I was at more Easter services than all the Christians put together on this zoom because I zoomed into about 70 or 80. I try to stay visible and in touch with people, and it keeps you grounded. It keeps you grounded and you do your job better. You know, people used to ask me, “Why do I spend eight hours at the state fair for three, four hours at the Taste of Buffalo or at the Park Avenue Street Fair in Rochester?” And you know, 50 people will just say hello, pass you by say thanks for being here. And the 51st person stops and says something and you're meeting average groups of folks, you know, these are not people who are coming to a town hall meeting with a specific response. And you learn, and that's what I always have done. And that's what I continue to do. This week I was in, you know, five or six counties. I was in Buffalo. I was in Canandaigua County, I was in your neighborhood in Rensselaer County talking actually about making the Capital Region the center of video games. We got some great companies, 23 startups, two brothers who were raised in Rochester created a company called Melon, that's one of the cutting edge companies in video games. Anyway, I tried to stay visible and in touch, and it keeps you grounded.

What about Israel? I mean, I know you've followed that situation for years and years. What do you make of what's going on now? 

Now that there's a new government, or it looks like there'll be a new government in Israel, I hope there can be a two state solution. I think the majority of Americans and the majority of people, even in Israel, want a two state solution, a Palestinian state and a Jewish state. Now with a new government, in Israel, or it looks like there's a new government, I'm hopeful that our administration will push to create that two state that's that's the best way to be. Jewish people should have a state of Israel and the Palestinian people should have their state.

Have you talked to people over there lately about the change in government?

Well, I I've talked to a few people who've just come back and they think it's going to happen. We'll see. You never know, just had such a difficult situation. I think what four elections, and nobody could form a government. So let's hope they can now.

Do you think that Netanyahu made a mistake being too close to Trump, one of the most dangerous presidents?

Yes, yes. I've told him that to his face. That I think I told him, I told him that just his total embrace of Trump alienates people, unnecessarily, from Israel.

And he responded and said?

He listens. That’s it.

“Don't tell me what to do. Don't talk to me about it.”

He just listens.

Talk to me about the filibuster. Huge number of people are writing me every day saying, “Get rid of the filibuster, do it now.” And I keep saying, “Yeah, that's fine. But what happens when the Republicans are in control of the Senate, if they are?”

Well, you know, yeah, look, I think we need big bold action. There is no question about it. In many areas, we need real change in America. And I've stood for big bold action on so many things like climate, like racial inequality, like economic inequality, like you know, there's there are new problems that come up in the country that we have to deal with. Let me give you one that Joe Biden has correctly put in his American Jobs Plan, which is childcare. The world has changed when I was a boy in the 50s and 60s. My dad had this junky little exterminating business, not very successful, but my mom stayed home. She was a homemaker. That's what they called it in those days. And I got home from school at three o'clock and there she was, and there was milk and cookies and “Okay, what homework do you have? Go out and play, come back.” And that's how families worked. You didn't need childcare. Now it's a minority of families that have two parents, with only one worker. Vast majority of families raising children are either single parent or two parents with both working childcare is a huge burden on poor people on middle class people. And Biden has proposed that we improve childcare. By the way of the 37 countries in the OECD, developing, semi-developed countries, supposedly we’re 36 in childcare only Turkey... okay, I make that point just to show that we have to adapt to the changing world, help poor working families adapt to it. And we need big bold action. If the Republicans join us in that big bold action, that's great. And that's what we prefer. But we have to have that action. And if they stand in the way, we'll have to figure out what to do. When it comes to something like child care and infrastructure, we can do it under this infrastructure plan, under this reconciliation plan, if we have to, and you don't need 60 votes, but in areas where you might need 60 votes, well, everything will be on the table.

I want to go back, Chuck, if I may, to the filibuster. So if I'm hearing you correctly, big and bold means “OK, get rid of the filibuster.”

No, again, big and bold means big bold action and figure out the best way to get there. We had… it's important to get there. Well, it depends on different issues, it will be different things on this America Competitiveness Act which can be so good for the Capital Region and for building a new chip bed in Malta, for enhancing U of Albany's nanotech center and making Albany, even with IBM working and Intel working, the center of new chip formulation that has happened in a bipartisan way. But when you can't do it in a bipartisan way, you got to look at other alternatives.

Let's go to the Capitol riots. You were there. You were under pressure, people were being chased. The Vice President of the United States at the time was being chased around with a noose outside, and still he supports President Trump. I have no idea what's wrong with that man, but he does. No, is there going to be somewhere…

I think your readers will be, your listeners will be interested in this. We're going to tell you my January 6th, okay. I call it the best, the best of times, the worst of times. That was the opening line. As you may remember, in Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities. Best of times: January 5th, was our elections in Georgia. And I knew that if our two senators in Georgia won, I would have achieved my lifelong dream of becoming the Majority Leader. So I'm nervous. I stay up all night. We're looking at the results, Tuesday night bleeds into Wednesday morning. I'm still on the computer. What's the results in Chatham County? What's the African American turnout in DeKalb County at 2 a.m.? Finally, at 4 a.m. they declare it's clear that our two candidates have won. My first reaction: joy. When you've achieved the goal that you've long sought after. Detours in the road, logs in the path, of course, joy and to me gratefulness to God that that has happened. I had a second reaction immediately thereafter which I've tried to describe as I couldn't figure out the right word. But I call it awe, but I don't mean awe in the sense my teenage daughters used to use, “Gee dad the movie was awesome.” But awe in the biblical sense. When the angels see the face of God, they trembling in awe” and I realize the huge responsibilities on my shoulders in the shoulders of our thin majority to get things done, the kinds of things I've mentioned before. So I have those two emotions coursing through my veins. I can't sleep I get up at seven. I'm in Brooklyn, drive down to Washington get on the floor of the Senate at 1pm. First time as the putative Majority Leader. I'm on the floor of the Senate for just about an hour when a police officer in a bulletproof vest and a submachine gun strapped across his waist grabs me by the collar, never forget the firmness of that grasp. And he says “Senator, you're in danger. We got to move.” I didn't know what the danger was. He explained to me. You may have seen this because this was on the video cameras, security cameras, they caught it overhead used it in the impeachment trial. We go out the Senate chamber we turn to the right and walking briskly with a police officer on either side of me. We go through a door and then you don't see us on this film for about 20 seconds. And then we're coming out the door running at full speed the other way I was within 20 feet of these insurrection is horrible, horrible people. And one of them had a gun at a couple of them blocked the door. Who knows what would have happened it was reported later one of them said there's the big Jew, let's get ‘em. So that was the worst of times.

But now I think Alan and I'll conclude on this. We're beginning to get to the better of times. We've delivered the checks to people, we've gotten vaccines out so it's much better. We've helped our restaurants we've helped our small businesses, my Save Our Stages legislation, which helps keep our arts institutions like the Palace Theatre in Albany where I've visited, open. We've done so much so many different things in that American Rescue Plan that we're beginning to show America, there's a positive path. And I'll conclude by telling you, that's my mission: to give the average American hope, again, in the American dream. Too many people have lost faith in that dream. If you ask the average American what's the American dream to you, they put it simply, they say, “it means if I work hard, I'll be doing better 10 years from now, and my kids will be doing still better than me.” When people don't believe that they can turn to a dictatorial type personality, an authoritarian, a divisive, even a racist type personality like Trump. We must restore that American dream and as Majority Leader, it's not easy with 50 votes and often no cooperation, as we mentioned, from the Republicans, but we got to get it done. And I'm going to try my darndest.

Dr. Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the University at Albany. He hosts the weekly Capitol Connection series, heard on public radio stations around New York. The program, for almost 12 years, highlighted interviews with Governor Mario Cuomo and now continues with conversations with state political leaders. Dr. Chartock also appears each week on The Media Project and The Roundtable and offers commentary on Morning Edition, weekdays at 7:40 a.m.
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