Technology

Schumer Wields Political Heft in Bid for New York Chips Funds


In a darkened hotel ballroom in San Jose, Calif., last November, the most powerful players in the semiconductor industry received a familiar sales pitch.

Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, appeared by video message to urge the industry titans at the Semiconductor Industry Association’s annual awards dinner to work together to strengthen American manufacturing of a critical technology — and to invest more in his home state of New York.

“I ask that more of the industry consider investing in the Empire State, and if you do, you’ll find no greater champion in your corner than me, the Senate majority leader,” Mr. Schumer said, to cheers and laughs of recognition from a crowd accustomed to the senator’s solicitations.

Amid growing fears about China’s dominance of technology and America’s loss of competitiveness, Mr. Schumer last year helped rally Congress to push through the biggest industrial policy programs the United States has seen a generation. The Biden administration is now preparing to invest tens of billions of dollars in the U.S. semiconductor industry in an effort to boost chip manufacturing across the country and lessen U.S. reliance on foreign factories.

If Mr. Schumer gets his way, a substantial part of that funding will flow to New York.

In his encounters with chip executives, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and President Biden himself, Mr. Schumer has openly and aggressively drawn on his political capital as majority leader to try to channel investment to his home state. During the months where Congress was debating whether to approve that funding, industry executives who set foot in Mr. Schumer’s office or spoke to him on the flip phone he carries in his breast pocket were asked when, not if, they would invest in New York.

Mr. Schumer, a longtime China critic, primarily views the investments as critical to reducing America’s reliance on Beijing for a technology that powers everything from cars and dishwashers to missiles and fighter jets. Most chip production has moved to Asia in recent decades, leaving the U.S. economy highly vulnerable to shortages, as became apparent during the pandemic.

But he also saw the opportunity to fulfill a more personal goal: securing investment that could revive the factory towns of his home state, which had been hollowed out through decades of competition with China. The move would also augment his local political support, attract donations from chip companies to fill Democratic coffers and cement his legacy as a proponent of upstate New York.

“I cared about upstate and I cared about competition with China,” Mr. Schumer said in an interview in Albany in June. “When I drafted the legislation, I did things with New York companies in mind.”

Senate majority leaders and other legislators have long used their clout to drive federal funds back home. But Mr. Schumer is capitalizing on his position at an opportune moment, as the United States prepares to invest nearly $53 billion in the sector, including $11 billion for chip research and $39 billion in manufacturing grants.

Still, some critics have cautioned that economic and strategic factors, not political influence, must determine the investment decisions that could shape the U.S. economy for decades to come.

If the proposed investments are realized, New York could become one of the country’s busiest hubs for chip production. Chip makers like GlobalFoundries, IBM, Onsemi and Wolfspeed are applying for funds to build or expand facilities there. Micron Technology, a memory chip maker, is proposing to invest up to $100 billion near Syracuse over the next two decades to build what would be the largest high-tech chips facility proposed in the United States, employing up to 9,000 people.

Mr. Schumer is also pushing for New York to play a leading role in semiconductor research, as the headquarters of a new federal chip research organization.

Competition for federal funding is expected to be fierce. By late June, the Commerce Department — which will dole out the funds — had received nearly 400 statements of interest from companies that intended to apply for money.

“I suspect there will be many disappointed companies who feel that they should have a certain amount of money,” Ms. Raimondo said in February.

New York has already faced some setbacks. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, Samsung and Intel, makers of the most cutting-edge types of logic chips, passed over the state in recent years in favor of Arizona, Texas and Ohio, where they are now building large facilities that could absorb a significant portion of government funding.

Chip industry executives say practical factors, like the cost of electricity, land and capital, the availability of workers and the proximity of their suppliers, weigh heaviest in their decisions about where to invest.

But the pressure from Mr. Schumer — and from other influential lawmakers, university presidents and company executives who helped secure the funding — raises questions about the role powerful political figures will play in the next chapter of American industrial policy.

“I think there is and ought to be a lot of skepticism about political players having a major say in decision making over where these funds are spent,” said Chris Miller, an associate professor at Tufts University and the author of “Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology.”

“If you want effective industrial policy, you have to keep it as far away as possible from pork barrel politics,” he said.

The Commerce Department has been hiring experts in finance and semiconductors to review company applications, and it has set up a selection committee to chose the board for the new research center, called the National Semiconductor Technology Center. The department appears to be trying to avoid any undue influence or favoritism.

“Our awards will be entirely dependent upon the strength of applications and which projects will advance U.S. economic and national security interests,” the Commerce Department said in a statement.

Mr. Schumer insists that New York will win federal dollars on its own merits, but he is also explicit about the benefit his position brings. In June, as he walked the sunlit halls of the Albany NanoTech Complex, a long-running chip research and educational facility, Mr. Schumer said he “did not close out a single discussion” with a semiconductor company without encouraging them to invest in New York.

New York has five main advantages, he told executives: Skilled workers, stemming from New York’s history of manufacturing. Cheap and plentiful water. Cheap hydropower. Shovel-ready sites for companies to build on.

“And fifth, they had the majority leader,” he said.

In a yellow-lit clean room behind Mr. Schumer, workers in white protective suits were tending to hundreds of millions of dollars of advanced machinery. On tracks overhead, mechanized metal pails whizzed by carrying silicon wafers, each roughly the size of a record, to and from the machines, where they would be imprinted with layers of intricate circuitry.

Mr. Schumer paused to peer over his reading glasses at a smooth, white box the size of a mobile home: an extreme ultraviolet lithography machine, made by the Dutch firm ASML, arguably the most advanced piece of machinery ever developed.

Albany NanoTech is the only public research facility in the United States with such a machine. The facility is applying for federal funding to build a new clean room in an adjacent parking lot, and it hopes to become home to part of the government’s new research center.

“This is the perfect place,” Mr. Schumer said. “When we wrote the CHIPS and Science bill to set up a National Semiconductor Technology Center, I had Albany in mind. And I’m pushing to get it.”

Mr. Schumer said he had personally made that case to a parade of administration officials he brought through the state. That included Mr. Biden, who was pitched on New York’s potential as the two men rode in a motorcade to hear Micron’s investment announcement last October.

By his telling, Mr. Schumer’s efforts on behalf of upstate New York are a personal mission, stemming in part from an early challenge from a political opponent who told voters they would never see Mr. Schumer, a Brooklyn native, west of the Hudson River. As Mr. Schumer watched companies like General Motors, General Electric and Carrier shutter their New York facilities, he said, he vowed to do something to stop the flow of young people out of the state.

Mr. Schumer had also been one of Congress’ earliest China hawks, particularly on the issue of Chinese currency manipulation. During a workout in 2019 in the Senate gym, Mr. Schumer began forming a plan with Senator Todd Young, Republican of Indiana, to bolster the U.S. economy by dedicating over $100 billion to technology research.

It took two years — and an aggressive, coordinated lobbying effort between government and industry — to amass the support and momentum to turn that bill into law. Mr. Schumer and other key Republican and Democratic lawmakers enlisted company executives, university presidents and state officials to talk publicly about the importance of the funding, and put pressure on reluctant members of Congress.

Mr. Schumer also worked closely with Ms. Raimondo to push the bill forward. He called her frequently as obstacles arose, including during Sunday Mass and her daughter’s 18th birthday party, she said in an interview in July 2022.

As the bill progressed, the prospect of funding for new U.S. factories touched off an elaborate game of courtship among legislators, state officials and companies.

The number of chip lobbyists in Washington multiplied. Companies like GlobalFoundries and Intel, which stood to benefit enormously from the legislation, hosted or attended fund-raisers and virtual events for Mr. Schumer in the months before the CHIPS Act was passed. From the beginning of 2021 through June 2023, political action committees linked with Mr. Schumer received more than $350,000 in donations from executives at chip companies and their suppliers, including a $5,000 donation from Intel’s chief executive, Pat Gelsinger, data from the Federal Election Commission shows.

New York played host to a series of chip companies considering potential investments, particularly for the plot that Micron now plans to build on. TSMC looked at the site in 2019 before it chose Arizona, and Intel considered the same location but ultimately chose Ohio.

Micron was ready to write off New York because the state did not have a big enough site, Ryan McMahon, the local county executive, said. To win the final bid, the county spent tens of millions of dollars acquiring land, including buying out a street of homeowners, and running gas and electricity to the site, he said.

“If Schumer didn’t introduce us, it’s one of those things, you wonder if it ever would have happened,” Mr. McMahon, a Republican, said.

Mr. Schumer, along with other proponents, secured an investment tax credit in the chips legislation that Micron saw as key to making the economics of the project work. And at the urging of Gov. Kathy Hochul, New York state lawmakers passed their own chips subsidy bill to complement the federal one, approving up to $500 million a year in tax abatements to chip manufacturers.

Micron has said it plans to start construction next year and complete the first $20 billion phrase of the factory by 2030. New York State has promised to give Micron $5.5 billion in tax credits over the life of the project if the company meets certain employment targets.

As the biggest maker of memory chips with headquarters in the United States, Micron is seen as a likely candidate for a federal grant. But other developments have thrown the project into question: Micron has recently become the subject of a crackdown in China that could cost the company an eighth of its global revenues, potentially undercutting its ability to make ambitious investments.

The deal has also been met with skepticism from local government watchdogs, who fear that Micron will become the latest firm to be offered taxpayer subsidies but fail to deliver the promised economic impact.

“It might be good geostrategic policy for the United States,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a watchdog focused on the New York government. “But for New York, it’s an incredibly low return on the investment of subsidy dollars.”

For both Mr. Schumer and Governor Hochul, the Micron investment became a centerpiece of their electoral strategy last fall. With Republicans on their way to the best statewide showing in two decades, both Democrats packaged clips of themselves with Micron’s chief executive into TV ads that blanketed parts of the state otherwise wary of Democrats’ economic agenda.

“Transformational for upstate New York, transformational for America,” Mr. Schumer said in one.

Nicholas Fandos and Eric Lipton contributed reporting.