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 challengers themselves have stayed silent on the matter or have sought to strike a diplomatic tone. Democratic candidate Joe Garcia, a former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation who is running against Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, would say only, "Debbie Wasserman Schultz and I have been friends for over two decades. I know her from her time on the staff of Peter Deutsch, and I expect to continue to have a very good relationship with her." The same question draws a long silence from Annette Taddeo, a Colombian-born businesswoman running against Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. She says only that she is "confident that I will work with [Wasserman Schultz] in Congress on issues that she feels strongly about." Raul Martinez, the former Hialeah mayor running against Lincoln Diaz-Balart, did not return calls on the subject of Wasserman Schultz.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, who chairs the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC, calls the three Miami Republicans the "most consistent leaders" on policy toward Cuba. But Claver-Carone denies that his group would punish one of its Democratic champions, Wasserman Schultz, if she joined the campaigns against those Republicans. "We don't get involved in interparty politics," he says.

The consensus among those following the races is that the candidates would be unwise to run afoul of Wasserman Schultz. Such is her power — as a fundraiser, campaigner, and legislator. Not surprisingly, in the months since the brouhaha surfaced, local Democrats have backpedaled. Chairman Berlin no longer sounds "appalled." This month, he called Wasserman Schultz a "remarkable leader" who enjoys the unequivocal support of his organization.

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.

Wasserman Schultz is tough, focused, and, on those rare occasions when she's come under attack, unflappable. But she has a strong defensive impulse on at least one front: her family.

With good reason. Wasserman Schultz is one of only ten mothers in Congress who have kids under the age of 13. In fact, she's the only mom in Congress who has three kids younger than 10. Even in this era of working moms, her schedule is remarkable. During a "good" week, she spends Tuesday through Thursday night in Washington, leaving the care of her kids to her husband. During a bad week, though, she's away for at least four days. And the time she does spend at home is divided between her duties as a mother and a legislator. Her unorthodox lifestyle has even become a campaign issue.

In her 2004 congressional campaign, she ran against a 58-year-old real-estate agent from Davie named Margaret Hostetter, who criticized Wasserman Schultz for running for Congress during a time that she had 4-year-old twins and a 1-year-old daughter at home. In a recording posted on her website, Hostetter said, "Today women can do it all... just not at the same time." Wasserman Schultz recognized that Hostetter was dangling bait. Still, she says, "it took every ounce of self-control" not to respond. She waited for Election Day, when she took 70 percent of the vote.

But the issue has persisted. Last month, Wasserman Schultz spent part of one weekday morning at the Sagemont School, the private grade school in Weston where she had just had parent-teacher conferences for her twin 9-year-olds, Jake and Rebecca. Her press secretary picked her up. He brought along a copy of that day's Roll Call, a widely read paper focused on Capitol Hill. On the front page was a profile of Wasserman Schultz headlined "Florida's Hurricane Force in the House." The story identified the congresswoman as a likely successor to Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the current chair of the Democratic National Campaign Committee. The same position had been a star-making turn for Emanuel, the Illinois congressman, and it would be another giant step for Wasserman Schultz.

But the story also included a quote from colleague Alcee Hastings that elicited a sigh from Wasserman Schultz. Hastings, a Democrat from Miramar, praised her for combining her legislative duties with motherhood. But he also suggested that the promotion might overwhelm her. Wasserman Schultz didn't think Hastings meant any harm. He's from an older, more conservative generation, she noted. Still, she seemed eager to change the subject.

When Wasserman Schultz is at home, she throws herself into the arduous duties that come with suburban child-rearing. On a recent Friday afternoon, for instance, she could be found in the Sagemont courtyard, giving her daughter's Brownie troop a crash course in gardening, a necessary lesson if they're to earn their badges. The six girls all spoke loudly and simultaneously and went dashing off in opposite directions. The congresswoman, for once, seemed frazzled.

"It's really hard," she later admitted. "It was hard [Monday] night, when I was tucking my kids in, when I knew I had to wake at 4:15 a.m. and leave the house at 5:30 a.m. and I wasn't going to see them. They get really sad the night before they know I'm leaving for Washington."

Her husband, Steve Schultz, an investment banker, drives the kids to school, then to softball and diving classes on the days that Congress is in session. "Her being up there [in Washington], it's a little harder, but it's not the end of the world," Schultz says. "The kids are used to it."

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