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How Chuck Schumer fended off a Democratic primary in New York

Chuck Schumer stood on stage at the state Democratic convention inside a Manhattan hotel late Thursday morning, gazing out at an assemblage of party leaders and hangers-on still filtering in after a night of booze-tinged welcoming receptions.

“How many of you have been at a graduation where I spoke?” he asked. Hands quickly shot up across the Sheraton Times Square ballroom.

“Look at that,” the senator said. “There you go. So you know I didn’t get the girl.”

The born and bred Brooklynite and U.S. Senate majority leader was referencing his go-to speech at college commencement ceremonies across the state, his oft-repeated tale of turning down a chance to travel the world to stay at home with a girlfriend who promptly dumped him. It was Schumer’s way of flexing his now-legendary muscle as a retail politician, showing up to events big and small in each of New York’s 62 counties each year even after he became one of the nation’s most powerful officials.

And his allies say it’s that ubiquitous presence that has helped him ward off a serious Democratic primary challenge as he seeks a fifth term this year, even after years of whispers from progressive Democrats hoping that someone – perhaps Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx, or maybe someone else – would take him on from the left.

“He’s 62-county Chuck,” said Bronx Democratic Chair Jamaal Bailey, a state senator representing the northeast section of the borough. “Chuck Schumer is one of the best, if not the best, retail politicians that we’ve known.”

The state Democratic Committee endorsed Schumer’s re-election bid Thursday by unanimous consent after no other candidate sought the party’s nod. It cleared the way for Schumer to likely run unopposed in the June 28th Democratic primary, unless someone were to mount an uphill challenge by petitioning their way onto the ballot.

At the convention, Democratic officials praised Schumer’s prowess for traversing the state and making pivotal connections that long ago solidified his presence as a political force. Like Bailey, they praised his ability to connect with individual voters by showing up at events big and small.

State Sen. Shelley Mayer, a Yonkers Democrat who has known Schumer for more than three decades, told a story of when she first made the transition from behind-the-scenes government lawyer to a political candidate herself. She was running for state Assembly in 2006 against Mike Spano, a moderate Republican who was well-liked even among some Democrats. (Later, he went on to enroll as a Democrat and became Yonkers mayor.)

Mayer couldn’t get local officials, not even local Democrats, to stand with her at her own events. But Schumer did.

“He was a United States senator and he came to my little high school and Yonkers to stand with me,” Mayer said. “Some of my colleagues wouldn’t stand with me. Chuck Schumer had the guts to stand with me.”

Schumer’s potential Republican opponent says Schumer’s ubiquity in some areas of the state could actually work to his advantage.

“Many of the critiques that you get from some of the people in those counties that Senator Schumer prides himself in visiting every year, they are not flattering,” political commentator Joe Pinion, who is seeking the GOP nod, said Friday.

Pinion, a Yonkers native who hosted a show on the conservative television station Newsmax, said it wasn’t Schumer’s local-level politicking that helped him fend off any potential primary challenge.

“He was able to consolidate power on the left because he is the source of power on the left,” Pinion said. “I’m not saying that Senator Schumer is a bad man, but I’m also saying that he is not necessarily particularly well-liked and yet he has continued to accumulate power because the source of his power are the dollars in his campaign coffers.”

A Siena College poll showed 51% of New York voters had a favorable view of Schumer in January, including 72% of Democrats.

For his part, Schumer’s ability to hang on to his powerful majority leader post will depend on the results of Senate elections in other states, where 34 seats are up for election this year. Democrats have the slimmest of majorities in the 100-seat body, with 50 votes and Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaker.

At the state convention, Schumer touted his annual cross-state treks. He said he was proud to continue his tradition of visiting each county in the state each year even after he became majority leader, which had some questioning whether he would be able to continue to make it happen.

“Why do I do it? It helps me do my job better,” Schumer said at the convention. “I talk to people. I learn. I listen.”

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