Steve Solarz (1940-2010) and the making of Senator Schumer

Stephen Solarz. (Photo by LIFE magazine.)
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The initial obituaries for Stephen Solarz, the former nine-term congressman from Brooklyn who died of esophageal cancer at the age of 70 on Monday, do not even mention the name Chuck Schumer. Which is a shame, because there might not have been a Chuck Schumer, as we know him today, if there hadn’t been a Stephen Solarz.

To the extent that Schumer, who was just 23 and barely out of Harvard law when he won a seat in the Assembly back in 1974, had a political mentor, it was Solarz. Separated by ten years in age, the two hailed from the same part of Brooklyn and brought the same brand of liberalism, the same tireless work ethic, and the same endless comfort with self-promotion to the political arena. They started out as unwavering allies, each playing a pivotal role in the other’s rise. But Brooklyn soon proved too small for the both of them, their ambitions turned into a source of tension and conflict, and a deep, bitter, decades-long freeze ensued. To Solarz, Schumer would become an insufficiently grateful upstart—the kid who’d grown too big for his britches. To Schumer, Solarz would come to serve as an object lesson in all of the wrong choices a politician can make. When the rivalry came to an abrupt and stunning end back in 1992, it was Schumer who got the last laugh—and Solarz, then barely into his 50s, who was frozen out of the game for the rest of his life.

Solarz got his start when Schumer was still a teenager, parlaying the experience he acquired managing an anti-war House campaign in 1966 into a winning bid of his own for the Assembly two years later. Just 28 years old, Solarz arrived in Albany as an idealistic reformer with a bright political future, and within a few years he was mounting a doomed but purposeful bid for Brooklyn borough president. Solarz knew he had little chance of ousting Sebastian Leone, a key player in Meade Esposito’s Brooklyn machine, in the 1973 primary. But the name recognition and political and fund-raising contacts he’d gain through the race would be invaluable, and with Representative Bertram Podell facing a federal corruption probe, there’d be a chance to put them to use right away.

Sure enough, Solarz was defeated by Leone and the Brooklyn regulars, only to knock off Podell—who ran with Esposito’s full support and under the cloud of a federal indictment (he was later convicted)—in the September 1974 primary. That primary win in Brooklyn’s old 13th District was tantamount to a general-election victory. The young liberal idealist was on his way to Washington, one of scores of reform-minded Watergate babies elected that fall.

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1973 and 1974 were just as important for Schumer, who saw the path to prominence that Solarz was blazing and set out to mimic it. Still in law school, he threw himself into Solarz’s ’73 borough president effort, making a name for himself among good-government reformers in Brooklyn and building goodwill with the candidate. Solarz was happy to return the favor a year later, throwing his support behind Schumer in the race to succeed him in Albany. On the same day that Solarz defeated Podell, Schumer edged out Jerome Cohen by 700 votes in the Democratic primary. The 45th Assembly District had a new face—and the New York state legislature had its youngest member since Theodore Roosevelt.

On Capitol Hill, Solarz quickly faced a fateful decision: what committee post to seek. Ways and Means and Appropriations were the plum assignments, and he probably could have maneuvered his way on to one of them. But he decided not to. The marquee committees were massive, with New Yorkers already serving on both of them. Under the House’s seniority system, it would be years before he’d play a meaningful role on either, and the odds that he’d ever ascend to a chairmanship were slim. Solarz wasn’t one for waiting. He chose Foreign Relations, and the chance to make a mark right away.

Schumer, who was no more eager to grow old in the Assembly than Solarz had been, wasn’t one for waiting, either. In his third term, he saw an opening: Elizabeth Holtzman was giving up her Brooklyn-based 16th District House seat to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Jacob Javits. Schumer jumped into the race to replace her, eager to join his mentor in Washington. But the mentor didn’t share this enthusiasm, probably because he could do the math: After the 1980 elections, New York’s House delegation—and New York City’s, in particular—would be hit hard by redistricting. The last thing he needed was a sharp, ambitious and well-connected pol like Schumer sliding into the neighboring 16th District seat. Schumer’s House campaign was an act of betrayal.

This time, there’d be no endorsement.

Not that this stopped Schumer, of course. The the young assemblyman out-hustled and out-raised his three foes, Susan Alter, Theodore Silverman and Edward Hayes, leaving them in the dust on primary day. He was 30 and on his way to the U.S. House, the stage seemingly set for a political death-match with Solarz in 1982.

When the figures from the ’80 census were tallied, New York was assigned to lose five House seats, a reduction from 39 to 34, with leaders from both parties in Albany empowered (through a commission they chose) to redraw the lines. The basic parameters were clear from the outset: Each party would give up two seats (with incumbents pitted against each other in primaries, if necessary), with a “fair fight” between a Democratic and Republican incumbent in a fifth district. As a freshman from overrepresented Brooklyn, Schumer was an obvious target, and with his district abutting Solarz’s, it was only natural to merge the two. Thus, his victory in 1980 set off a political and financial arms race like New York had never seen. Solarz, who had taken to traveling the country and the globe through his Foreign Affairs work, used his influential post to cultivate elite national donors, with a particular emphasis on pro-Israel money. In 1981 alone, he held fund-raisers in Cleveland, San Francisco, Detroit and Los Angeles, among other cities, raking in nearly $500,000—then a whopping sum for a House man.

“As Albert Camus once wrote, 'Nothing so wonderfully concentrates a man's mind as the imminent thought of execution,’” he told a New York Times reporter at the time.

But Schumer defied his freshman status and kept pace. After winning a spot on the Banking Committee, he set about making friends on Wall Street, tapping the city’s top law firms and securities houses for campaign donations. "I told them I looked like I had a very difficult reapportionment fight. If I were to stand a chance of being re-elected, I needed some help," he would later tell the Associated Press.

By the spring of 1982, the largest bankroll in the entire House belonged to Solarz, with nearly $700,000. The third-largest belonged to Schumer, with nearly $500,000. The strength each man demonstrated was enough to scare party leaders in Brooklyn and Albany into keeping them apart in redistricting. When the new maps were finally drawn in June ’82, Democrats served up Jonathan Bingham (who declined to run against fellow incumbent Mario Biaggi in the newly configured 19th District) and the eccentric Frederick Richmond (thrown into a new majority-minority 11th District, where Major Owens ultimately won the seat) and left Leo Zeferetti to fend for himself (and lose) against Republican Guy Molinari. Schumer and Solarz were left alone, free to grow in the House for another decade if they wanted. When the process ended, Schumer invited Solarz to lunch. “We talked about friendship,” he said afterward. “Everything's all right now.''

But it really wasn't.