Sen. Harry Reid’s announcement that he will not seek re-election in 2016 presents New York and New Yorkers with a rare and timely opportunity.
For those not keeping score, Reid (D-Nevada) has been the leader of the Democrats in the Senate since 2007. As such, he was the upper chamber’s majority leader until last year, a post he lost when Republicans supplanted the Democrats as the majority after the 2014 congressional elections.
The majority leader — formal title: President Pro-Tempore of the Senate — exercises formidable authority over the Senate’s calendar, committees and legislative processes and is third in line of succession to the presidency after the vice president and the speaker of the House of Representatives.
With Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) taking over that position, Reid became minority leader — still the powerful leader of his own party caucus, but with significantly less clout in the Senate overall.
When Reid formally steps aside, Democratic senators will elect a new leader, and all indications are that it will be New York’s senior senator, Charles Schumer.
As leader of the Senate’s Democrats, and through judicious and skillful exercise of the rights and prerogatives granted to the minority by Senate rules, Schumer will be given consequential opportunities to shape and influence important legislative outcomes.
Furthermore, in the contemporary roller-coaster world of American politics, it is probably only a short matter of time before Democrats recapture enough seats to make Schumer majority leader and one of the three most powerful elected figures in the federal government.
Schumer’s ascendancy should be welcome news for New York’s electorate because it comes at a time when this state’s influence in national affairs has been waning, along with its population relative to other faster-growing states and the attendant size of its congressional delegation.
It is jokingly — and not entirely inaccurately — said of Schumer that the most dangerous place to be situated is between him and a camera.
More seriously, other observers have noted that in an era of rampant and diversified media, his demonstrably successful public relations methods might serve as textbook.
Either way, Charles Ellis “Chuck” Schumer is virtually assured of winning his fourth term in the U.S. Senate from New York voters in 2016. He prides himself on having visited each of New York’s 62 counties at least once in every year he has been a senator, and he has crafted a reputation for careful attention to local and regional issues important to average New Yorkers.
In comparison to his peers, these are unique attributes that are not likely to change, even with his further promotion to Senate leader.
His resume includes service as a state assemblyman (1975-80), congressman (1981-99), as well as U.S. senator (1999-date).
He has valuable experience at the national level, having played a significant role in nearly every important event and issue of the 21st century.
And, while he has held several key political and campaign posts and earned partisan success in each, his reputation within the Senate itself is as a consensus-builder — not an unhelpful standing in today’s polarized political and legislative environment.
New York’s history, within that of America as a whole, is unique. Drawing on its liberal Dutch and then more formal English roots, along with its mercantile history, the state has played an indispensable role in shaping American values, emphasizing tolerance, acceptance of diversity, social responsibility, the inevitability of change, the importance of marrying principled compromise to collective action and individual rights.
New York has demonstrated time and again that government authority properly deployed can serve as counterweight to the excesses of corporate power by effectively championing the rights of individuals and the public at large when powerful and wealthy private and corporate interests — whether intentionally or simply as a consequence of their size and influence — threaten to usurp them.
It is no accident that the Fair Deal of Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, and the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, directly emerged from the New York experience.
Schumer is thoroughly a New Yorker, as well as an astute and skillful politician with formidable knowledge and experience who works not only both sides of the political street, but the sidewalks, driveways and sometimes back lawns as well. Accused of being too close to Wall Street, he’s also credited with encouraging Elizabeth Warren to run for the Senate.
Expertise — with a range of complex subject matters, with the Senate’s unique and sometimes arcane practices, with the importance of using all means of getting the message out and generating public debate and support — is a vital commodity in government when everything else in the 21st century is so specialized, a key fact lost on those foolishly campaigning for term limits.
All of which underlines the significance and potential benefit of having a New Yorker, once again, in one of the most powerful posts in the federal government.
John Figliozzi of Halfmoon is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.