Photo Credit: Edward Kimmel via Flickr
Senator Charles Schumer at a rally, June 21, 2017

On January 25, the organization Just Democracy mounted a billboard in Times Square urging Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to “reckon with the filibuster’s racist history and abolish the Senate loophole once and for all.” The billboard ran through Sunday, January 31, “to remind the 117th Congress that Black and Brown voters will not sit back while the filibuster blocks critical social justice and civil rights bills.”

Just Democracy’s Time square billboard, Jan. 25, 2021. / Screenshot from Just Democracy’s website

Just Democracy says it is a coalition of more than 30 grassroots civil rights and social justice groups from around the country calling for “bold structural change to ensure our democracy works for all Americans.” This is why “when we’re fighting to eliminate the filibuster, we’re fighting for environmental justice. When we’re advocating to add seats to the Supreme Court, we’re fighting for access to affordable health care, voting rights, and reproductive justice.”


The billboard, resembling a movie poster, features quotes from President Obama who called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic,” former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who said it “outlived its usefulness,” and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who called it “a cherished tool of segregationists.”

The filibuster is a powerful legislative device in the United States Senate, where senators may speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless “three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn” vote to bring debate to a close by invoking cloture. Even if a filibuster attempt is unsuccessful, the process uses up floor time, and its defenders call it “the Soul of the Senate.”

In contrast with Just Democracy’s opinion, the filibuster, like the Senate as a whole, is intended to protect the minority against the devastating power of the Majority. The founding fathers feared the passionate mob even more than they did the tyranny of the king, and so they handed the Senate the power to slow down legislation coming down from the House of Representatives. And it’s also why—while the House membership is based on the population size of each state—there are no such distinctions in the Senate. Each state gets two senators.

Granted, like other features of a quarter-millennium old democracy, these things get abused and distorted by ambitious politicians, but it doesn’t mean it’s time to discard them, necessarily.

But when Sen. Chuck Schumer was asked during the 2020 campaign if he would move to kill the filibuster should he become majority leader (which he did), he told reporters that “nothing’s off the table.”

Now that the Democrats have won both chambers and the White House, and with Schumer embracing the role of majority leader, the senior senator from NY must prepare for his own reelection bid in 2022, and the distinct possibility that the progressives, led by AOC, will attempt to primary him the way they did incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel in 2020. And so Schumer finds himself more often than he wishes, in bed with a bunch of ragged progressives who are watching him closely for any sign of collaboration with the other side.

In many ways, Schumer reminds me of centrist Republican Senators who back in 2010 were swept to the extreme right by the Tea Party, a tale that ended with several senior Republicans in both houses either resigning or being primaried.

In the NY Times’ account of the NY State 1998 race for Senate, then Congressman Charles Schumer, the Democratic nominee, presented himself as a ”law-and-order Democrat” with a tougher record on crime than the incumbent Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato. Schumer followed his resounding primary victory with a push on the subject of crime, posing in front of a “gleaming blue-and-white police cruiser, where he ticked off crime bills he had sponsored in Congress.”

So 1998…

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking at a rally for Bernie Sanders in Council Bluffs, Iowa, November 8, 2019. / Matt A. Johnson via Flickr

According to Politico (Schumer quietly nails down the left amid AOC primary chatter), AOC is seriously considering going after Schumer’s Senate seat, but her decision will be contingent on Schumer’s record in the coming session: “Will he be pushed around by Mitch McConnell? Or will he work to pass ambitious, progressive legislation favored by the left?”

AOC’s former chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti told Politico: “It’s exciting to see how much action Schumer is currently taking, and I hope that progressives continue pressuring him, threatening a potential primary.”

Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, the progressive PAC founded in 2017 by executives from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ first failed presidential bid—who ran AOC’s successful 2018 campaign, told Politico that AOC’s decision to try to primary Schumer depends on what the senator does. “Schumer will have to explain every one of his decisions to one of the most progressive primary electorates in the country, and if voters think he’s capitulating to Mitch McConnell and not organizing his caucus to deliver for working families, then he’s going to be in some trouble.”

And Evan Weber, political director of the Sunrise Movement, another group that was forged after Sanders’ capitulation in 2016, this one advocating political action on climate change, expressed much satisfaction at the fact that by just being there, having accumulated real and imagined power, progressives have already been able to push the Democratic party and its leadership, Schumer more than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (who, unlike Schumer, is no stranger to progressive politics) in their desired direction.

“We’ve already seen a lot of evolution from Schumer on a whole host of issues, and if he keeps evolving and actually delivers for Democrats and can be the leader we need him to be right now, that’s the biggest thing he could do to avoid a big effort behind a primary from the left next year,” Weber told Politico.

This reporter would have preferred to see Schumer, together with NY Governor Andrew Cuomo, go into a closed room with a congressional map, and gerrymander AOC out of political existence – but Democrats no longer do these things. And with former Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver in the clinker, raw power is just not what it used to be in NY State.

Of course, every pendulum comes back and goes in the opposite direction, and the folks who strip the Senate of the filibuster will wake up one morning, probably in this decade, to discover that the other side is stuffing terrible legislation down their throats and doing it with a simple 51-vote majority.

The things the AOC progressives want Schumer to do can make for an exciting Senate session: we mentioned kill the filibuster; there’s the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), an agreement among a group of US states and the District of Columbia to award all their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote in the 50 states and the District of Columbia; there’s the initiative to award statehood to the Black-majority District of Columbia and to Hispanic-majority Puerto Rico, hence giving Democrats an almost certain 4-vote advantage in the Senate (you heard right, S. Dakota and N. Dakota); and, should the need arise, an initiative to appoint additional Supreme Court justices.

Now, normally, you and I would have considered all of these notions to be amusing, but no way would Chuck Schumer go for them. But a Chuck Schumer hounded by the prospect of being primaried by AOC would probably take one look at the portrait of Eliot Engel (let’s say he has one hanging on his office wall), and break into the first stanza of the International.

All of the above will stop being amusing as soon as the progressives try to shift Senator Schumer in the direction of forcing Israel to accept a two-state solution, another beloved Bernie Sanders policy idea. Cowering to the progressives on this point could jeopardize Schumer’s standing with his natural Jewish constituents, opening him up to being primaried from the right. Then there’s the Iran nuclear deal, which Schumer voted against.

It’s good to be the king, but then, inevitably, those folks with the pitchforks and guillotines show up at your door and ask if you could please step outside for a moment.


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