Lady of the House

She's got three kids, 650,000 constituents, and millions of watching eyes. Debbie Wasserman Schultz can't keep them all happy.

The general feeling among political observers is best summed up by another legislative aide, who asked not to be named: "Would her stock go up if Hillary were the nominee? Of course. But [Wasserman Schultz] works hard on the legislative side; she's been active and engaged in a whole slew of committees and has earned the trust of the party leadership." That means she'll remain a rising star after November, the aide says. Some have suggested that Wasserman Schultz might even enjoy a privileged role as the Obama campaign seeks to win the support of Clinton loyalists in a crucial swing state.

David Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report, says it's important to remember that presidential politics has little effect on the congressional pecking order. Wasserman Schultz still has a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, and she's still helping lead the party's Red to Blue Program.

Hillary Clinton's campaign has relied on Wasserman Schultz to attack its enemies.
Hillary Clinton's campaign has relied on Wasserman Schultz to attack its enemies.

As co-chair of that ballyhooed program, Wasserman Schultz gets a national platform to display her campaigning and fundraising talents. These attributes served both her and the party well in 2006, when the congresswoman launched an offensive against Fort Lauderdale Rep. Clay Shaw, a Republican who had 26 years' tenure to Wasserman Schultz's two. After Shaw's defeat, Wasserman Schultz was cheered in liberal blogs for disregarding the gentleman's agreement that calls for lawmakers to abstain from getting involved in races too close to their home district.

Those same observers expected Wasserman Schultz to stage an encore performance in 2008, given that three long-held Republican congressional seats in Miami look vulnerable to upset. Who better to throw her support behind local Democrats than the feisty Red to Blue co-chair, who, after all, is running unopposed for reelection? But in early March, Wasserman Schultz declared that she would not be campaigning aggressively for the Democratic challengers.

A few hours after the Miami Herald wrote about Wasserman Schultz's decision, the liberal blogosphere was in uproar. One popular website, the Swing State Project, posted a headline that was typical of the tenor: "Wasserman Schultz wants Dem Challengers to lose." The blog's senior editor went on to note: "Hey Debbie, there are no recusals in politics. If you want to consider yourself a 'rising star' in the Democratic Party, don't think you can get away with this." Similar posts appeared on other liberal blogs, such as the Huffington Post and Daily Kos. Some readers demanded that the party remove Wasserman Schultz from the Red to Blue Program. Others went further, proposing that another democratic candidate be found to challenge her in 2010.

Wasserman Schultz had endured political blowback before, such as when she opposed impeaching President George W. Bush in 2007. But never on this scale. Within a week, the Washington Post and Herald had both reported on the blog reactions.

The contested seats belong to Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, his brother Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, all of whom are revered by South Florida's Cuban American community for taking a hard line against the Castro regime in their native country. Wasserman Schultz joins those Republicans on the Congressional Cuba Caucus. Her own hard line toward Cuba is an exception to an otherwise liberal voting record. In public remarks, Wasserman Schultz has likened Cuban Americans' predicament to that of the Jewish Americans like herself. Both groups, she says, extol democratic values that put them at odds with extremists who revert to totalitarianism in the case of Castro's regime or terrorism in the case of Hamas.

But in politics, such platitudes are rarely taken at face value, and it's worth noting that the U.S. Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee has been a major contributor to Wasserman Schultz's campaigns. The PAC gave her $10,000 this past election cycle. Individual members chipped in another $15,000.

Wasserman Schultz denies being influenced by the campaign contributions and insists that she has supported the challengers in Miami — just not in the high-profile way she did two years ago. In fact, she says, she helped identify the local Dems who would run most effectively. "The bloggers think I'm standing ready to sabotage [the candidates]," she says. "On the contrary, I'm the one who validated them."

She has tried to stanch criticism by stressing her concern for Floridians, who she says are better-served if she has a good working relationship with all members of the state's congressional delegation. "I have absolutely no hesitation to work against incumbent Republican colleagues," Wasserman Schultz contends. "But in this particular case, these districts are right next to mine, so I have to be careful."

So why did she abandon those same concerns to go after Shaw two years ago? "I never had a relationship with Clay Shaw," she says. "I had worked for [Shaw's challenger] Ron Klein for 12 years in the state Legislature. It's a different set of circumstances." Party leaders such as House Speaker Pelosi and Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel have issued statements in support of the congresswoman's decision.

These explanations were not enough for local Democrats. Incoming Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairman Bret Berlin told reporters he was "appalled" by the decisions of Wasserman Schultz and Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat who also refused to campaign for the Democratic challengers. A post on the party's website by communications director Larry Thorson asked, "Why are Democrats in perfectly safe seats not showing political courage?"

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