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Talk To Chuck

Most of New York’s leading politicians, including Gov. David Paterson and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have come to Wall Street’s defense against President Obama’s attacks on “fat cats” and other populist demons.

The notable exception is the state’s senior U.S. senator, Charles Schumer, whose seat on the Senate Banking Committee — and whose past political support of, and from, the financial industry — gave him a front-row seat to the credit crisis. Schumer has been uncharacteristically quiet while a president from his own party berates his state’s most vital industry, rewriting history to exonerate careless borrowers and lax government policy.

Not that Schumer is the shy type. Former Sen. Bob Dole supposedly once remarked that the most dangerous place in Washington is between Schumer and a television camera. But Schumer is a survivor (before winning a Senate seat in 1998, he was elected in three separate House districts as one seat after another was gerrymandered out from under him), and he apparently calculates that it is not in his best interest to pick a fight with his president. Not yet, at least.

That might soon change. Only a few months ago, Schumer’s seat seemed to be one of the safest in the Senate. The last time he ran, in 2004, Schumer piled up the largest victory margin on record for a New York statewide race. When 2010 began, Schumer seemed much more concerned about helping Kirsten Gillibrand, the little-known appointed successor to Hillary Clinton, hold her seat for the Democrats than about keeping his own perch.

But that was before Republican Sen. Scott Brown won the Massachusetts seat formerly held by Edward Kennedy. It was before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations can buy advertisements supporting or opposing candidates for federal offices. It was before former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr., now a New York investment banker, laid the groundwork for a primary race against Gillibrand by positioning himself as Wall Street’s defender against demagogic attacks. It was before an unknown Wall Street lawyer, Reshma Saujani, raised $400,000 almost overnight to run against incumbent Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents parts of Manhattan and Queens.

So far, no challenger has emerged to confront Schumer. Republicans are still trying to sort out a strong candidate to run for governor against Paterson or, perhaps, New York’s current attorney general, Andrew Cuomo. But Brown’s victory in deep-blue Massachusetts means Schumer’s seat, too, could be up for grabs in a suddenly target-rich environment. I would not be surprised to see a wealthy or well-financed Republican show up to confront him.

Some Democrats in New York, and I suspect nearly all outside the metropolitan area, cannot fathom why anyone would want to campaign against the surge of popular anger that we are told is gripping the nation whenever bankers are mentioned.

This overlooks the realities of life in New York City and the rest of the state. Wall Street does not benefit only that tiny slice of the population that pulls down seven- or eight-figure bonuses. If you drive down bankers’ compensation or drive them to other locales, the real estate business will suffer. If you drive out the banks, the law firms will leave, too, taking their lawyers with them. Restaurants and theaters will lose patrons. Cabbies, limo drivers and parking garages will lose customers. So will the boutiques and department stores. So will the art galleries.

Every New York taxpayer will take a hit, as the city and state lose the hugely disproportionate income and sales tax revenues that a relative handful of bankers, traders and fellow professionals generate. And in the New York City suburbs, where statewide elections are usually decided, sky-high property taxes are unsustainable without Wall Street money.

This is why Bloomberg and Paterson rushed to defend Wall Street. Schumer, on the other hand, has had virtually nothing to say recently on the subject other than to exhort major banks to increase their lending to small businesses.

Are you tired of seeing anyone with an M.B.A. in finance get publicly flogged for the electoral gain of politicians? If you have a lot of money, or the energy to raise it, you might want to run for one of those Senate seats from New York that Obama is counting on to enact what remains of his legislative agenda.

Otherwise, talk to Chuck. Tell him he’ll look better on TV if he stands up for his state’s key industry the next time the president takes a cheap shot.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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