Veteran Democratic New York Senator Chuck Schumer has earned a reputation as a lawmaker who loves seeing his name in the headlines and, especially, his face on television. An infamous joke on Capitol Hill claims “the most dangerous place in Washington is between Chuck Schumer and a TV camera.” President Barack Obama once tweaked Schumer at an event by joking the senator had brought his “loved ones” — “the folks with the cameras and the notebooks in the back of the room.”
However, in a half-dozen interviews with Business Insider, former Schumer staffers articulated a far more nuanced media strategy and shared some lessons from the Chuck Schumer School of Public Relations. Two former aides to the senator independently declared there is “a method” to the senator’s “madness.”
“He’s very successful and smart when it comes to identifying issues where the press can play a key role in solving a problem. I think one of the misnomers … is that it’s just about getting press for the sake of getting press. But there’s a method to the madness,” said Phil Singer, who served as Schumer’s communications director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Weekly Sunday press briefings are a staple of Schumer’s strategy for getting ink and airtime. Schumer is credited with inventing these Sunday morning press conferences, which have since been occasionally adopted by other New York lawmakers. At these events, Schumer often stands before a gaggle of reporters and announces his plan to fix some obscure problem that wasn’t necessarily on anyone else’s radar.
“The incidents are skyrocketing,” Schumer said at one such event in 2012, holding a colourful laundry detergent gel pod. “These pods were supposed to make household chores easier, not tempt our children to swallow harmful chemicals. I saw one on my staffer’s desk and I wanted to eat it … I don’t know why they make them look so delicious.”
In addition to fighting the menace of potentially appetizing laundry detergent pods, Schumer has waged war on metal barbecue brushes. He’s urged tougher rules for laser pointers. The senator helped to banish caffeinated alcoholic beverages after the Four Loko brand rose in popularity. Powdered alcohol. Inhalable caffeine. The list goes on. The New York Observer once teased Schumer’s propensity for taking on these rather esoteric causes with a slideshow titled, “A List of ‘Fun’ Things Sen. Charles Schumer Has Tried to Destroy.”
To generate maximum attention for his efforts, Schumer’s press conferences regularly latch onto larger media narratives. For example, after the missing Malaysian plane dominated the news earlier this year, he called for new travel rules. At the height of World Cup fever last month, Schumer was there calling for a health alert about a mosquito-born virus soccer fans could possibly bring back to the United States from the games in Brazil.
It’s easy to be dismissive of Schumer’s apparent hunger for headlines and his eccentric roster of pet projects. Indeed, the senator’s political opponents mock his propensity for courting media attention.
“New Yorkers have little to show for having America’s hammiest Senator: if Chuck Schumer thought half as much about jobs as he does about mosquito bites and bath salts, we might not have more Americans out of the labour force than at any time in our Nation’s history,” David Laska, a spokesman for the state’s Republican Party, told Business Insider.
But Schumer’s allies argue the various issues he’s taken on over the years often truly matter to ordinary New Yorkers.
“Whether in fact the suntan lotion that you’re putting on you kids is actually protecting them or not, that’s a real issue,” said Mike Morey, a former Schumer press secretary, referencing anotherone of the senator’s crusades. “My wife and I, we look at the bottle, we try and make sure that the stuff we put on our kids is good for them and will protect them.”
Stu Loeser, another former Schumer press secretary, recalled telling the senator of his mother’s discovery one of her gift cards had lost value over time. Schumer was indignant and made the issue one of his trademark initiatives.
“Chuck said, ‘Do they all do this? Do all gift cards have this depreciating value once you activate them?'” And he said, ‘Look into it,'” Loeser recounted, describing Schumer as “outraged” after learning the practice was widespread. “The Sunday after Thanksgiving, right after the shopping season, we launched a press conference.”
Loeser said the senator’s action helped lead gift card companies to voluntarily curb the practice.
“Is it TARP? Is it the Mexican monetary crisis of 1994? No it’s not like that. But does it matter to real people? Absolutely. It matters to a lot of people,” Loeser continued.
Along with his more personal battles, Schumer, who is widely considered a leading candidate to eventually replace Majority Leader Harry Reid, has spearheaded more conventional fights in Washington to advance his party’s priorities on bread-and-butter issues like a minimum wage increase and tuition relief. Schumer is currently championing the “fair shot” agenda that contains many of these ideas. Still, whether he’s railing against barbecue brushes or national economic issues, staffers say Schumer’s media strategy follows a similar script.
The Schumer media method, according to yet another one of the senator’s former senior aides, is relatively simple.
“You can always tell that a former Schumer staffer … has written something because it always follows a certain formula: Present the problem. Personalise the problem. Present the solution. Personalise the solution,” the aide said. “Something is bad. Something is wrong. Something needs fixing. Here’s why. When Mary Smith needs to do X or tries to do Y, she can’t do it because of what I just told you. I believe that this problem can be fixed the following way. Now Mary’s able to do it.”
Indeed, Schumer’s formula appears to have had at least some success. According to the Daily News, 57% of Schumer’s Sunday morning events in 2013 were followed by federal action on the issue. (The Schumer camp believes the paper’s methodology was flawed and that number should be even higher.)
In a statement to Business Insider, Schumer touted some of what he has accomplished through media exposure.
“Working with the media remains an effective and essential way to raise issues, educate the public, and prod policy-makers and corporate leaders to change for the better,” he said, citing Sandy relief aid, reforming the gift card system, and a New York City welcome-home parade for veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Work we have done to raise issues via media exposure has been fundamental to producing positive results that have real impacts on New Yorkers’ lives.”
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