Lady of the House
Debbie Wasserman Schultz's political acumen has never been in doubt. Nor has her ambition. At 26, she became the youngest woman ever elected to the Florida Legislature. A decade later, she decided to run for U.S. Congress representing the district around her Weston home — despite having just given birth to her third child. She had two not-very-secret weapons: a war chest of a quarter-million dollars, and a reputation as a dogged campaigner and fundraiser. She went unopposed in the Democratic primary and entered Congress in 2004 at the ripe old age of 37. A few months after her arrival in Washington, Wasserman Schultz emerged as the Democrats' voice of reason in the frenzied debate over whether Terri Schiavo should remain in a vegetative state. She further endeared herself to party leaders in 2006 by helping friend Ron Klein unseat longtime Republican legislator Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale. Wasserman Schultz was appointed to the powerful House Committee on Appropriations and was made the party's deputy majority whip, as well as the co-chair of its Red to Blue Program, aimed at converting Republican congressional districts to Democrats.
"It's assumed that she will be angling for a leadership position in the House before long," says David Wasserman (no relation), an editor for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan website that specializes in analyzing elections. He notes that both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer have served in Congress a long time. As she accumulates seniority, Wasserman Schultz looks like an heir apparent. Given her meteoric rise, there are even those who suspect that the 41-year-old Jewish mom from the West Broward 'burbs has set her sights on an even higher prize.
But you don't become a big player in Washington without becoming an even bigger target. Wasserman Schultz learned that in March, when she was lambasted in the liberal blogosphere and the press for deciding not to campaign on behalf of Democratic contenders looking to unseat Republican incumbents in three congressional races in Miami-Dade County. She insisted her decision was based on the desire to work with Republicans who could help her win policies favorable to South Florida, but her critics claimed she cared more about appeasing the powerful Cuban exile community, which helped bankroll the campaigns of those Miami-Dade Republican incumbents — and which has donated heavily to Wasserman Schultz.
More recently, her role as a national co-chair of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign has placed her at the center of another controversy. Clinton's last hope to capture the nomination may depend on the results of a meeting this Saturday, at which the Democratic Party Rules Committee will consider what to do about the results of the previously disqualified Florida primary. Wasserman Schultz has advocated counting both the votes and delegates, a position that puts her on the sinking side of a political fault line that divides her party.
Regardless of that outcome, political observers insist Wasserman Schultz remains one of only a handful of women positioned to follow in the footsteps of Pelosi and, perhaps someday, Clinton herself. The question is how high she wants to go — and at what price?
Wasserman Schultz got her political blunders out of the way early. She ran for student council twice as a teenager in Long Island and lost both times. She hasn't lost an election since. Wasserman majored in political science at the University of Florida and stayed in Gainesville to enter a poli sci master's program. She spent her summers interning for politicians and found herself intrigued by the role of legislative aides, who research policy issues and respond to constituents' demands. Before the final year of her master's program, she sent out 180 résumés, split between legislators in her native New York and her adopted home of Florida. That yielded five interviews. "Wherever I got a job, that's where I was moving," she says. "I wanted it that badly."
One of those interviews was with Florida legislator Peter Deutsch. "I was a state representative then, and I didn't have a position to hire anyone," Deutsch recalls, "but her résumé was so outstanding — this woman seemed off the charts." By the end of the interview, he had offered the 23-year-old a summer job on his campaign. Two weeks later, Deutsch's legislative aide resigned, and he offered the job to Wasserman Schultz.
In 1992, when Deutsch decided to abandon his seat in the Florida Legislature to run for U.S. Congress, he phoned Wasserman Schultz, who was recently married, to recommend she run for the seat he was vacating. She was thrilled — and apprehensive. "I was 25," she says. "Most of the members of the House were old enough to be my parents — or my grandparents."
Her rival candidates and the party's kingmakers preached patience. "All the powers-that-be said, 'It's not your turn,' " Wasserman Schultz remembers. Five other Democrats entered the race. That campaign would become the stuff of Florida political legend. For six months, in the early evening hours of every day, Wasserman Schultz walked her district, knocking on doors. A petite woman to begin with, the exertion cost her 18 pounds, plunging her weight into double digits. Her husband began making her chocolate milk shakes to keep her from missing dinners. Wasserman Schultz won the race in spectacular fashion, defeating her closest primary opponent by 31 points.
That mandate didn't carry much weight with the older male Republicans who formed the majority of the state's Legislature. They mocked the bills she drafted — like the one to make dry cleaners charge men the same rates they charged women — as "flaky." But those same causes played well in her district, where liberal and feminist were not slurs. So did her staunch support of abortion rights.
During this period, Wasserman Schultz began to earn a reputation for being... well, the word used most commonly was feisty. To feminists, that adjective comes with a whiff of condescension. "But I am feisty," Wasserman Schultz stresses. "Feisty to me is a tremendous compliment. I really pride myself on not being afraid to stand alone."
She also prides herself on being aggressive when it comes to fundraising. "For women, fundraising is often a struggle," she says. "They have a hard time asking." Her war chests helped ward off Democratic challengers throughout her years in the state Legislature. And they helped in 2004, when she ran for Congress in Florida's 20th District, which stretches from Plantation down to Miami Beach. It also didn't hurt that her mentor, Deutsch, was leaving the seat to run for the U.S. Senate. Remarkably, Wasserman Schultz ran unopposed in the primary and won the largely Democratic district handily. (Ironically, Deutsch lost his bid for the Senate, narrowly, and has since left politics.)
A few months after Wasserman Schultz arrived in Washington, a political furor erupted over Terri Schiavo, the Floridian who had been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years. Schiavo's family wanted her to be kept alive by feeding tube. Her husband wanted the tube removed, claiming this is what she would have wanted. Wasserman Schultz was thrust into the role of Democratic spokeswoman not just because she had dealt with the Schiavo question when it came up in the Florida Legislature in 2003 but because she had recently had a personal experience similar to the Schiavos' — her husband's aunt had also been kept alive through feeding tubes, which the family decided should be removed.
Only two months after she was sworn in to office, Wasserman Schultz found herself on national news programs such as The Today Show opposing soon-to-be House Majority Leader Rep. Roy Blunt. "My family had to go through this exact same decision, and they would have found it incredibly offensive for Congress or any legislative body to insert themselves into our family business," she told anchor Ann Currie. "And if it could happen to Terri Schiavo's family, it could happen to any of us."
Like most of her Wednesdays in Washington, April 30 was a chaotic day for Wasserman Schultz. She spent hours darting among meetings with lobbyists, news conferences, committee hearings, strategy sessions with staff members, and tête-à-têtes with eminent figures like Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Lunch was a Snickers bar. Dinner was a fundraiser. And the working day didn't end till after 10 p.m., when Wasserman Schultz delivered a speech from the floor of Congress about American troop deployments to Iraq. If the congresswoman's kids wanted to see their mother before they went to bed this night, they'd have had to flip on C-SPAN.
Of all her duties on that Wednesday, the one Wasserman Schultz tackled with the most relish was a hastily organized Count Our Votes rally. The event consisted of a few hundred Floridians who had boarded buses late the previous evening and driven through the night so they could assemble themselves in front of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, where they chanted at the office window of party Chairman Howard Dean. The protesters were angry that the DNC had stripped Florida of its delegates as punishment for the state Legislature's decision to move up the date of its presidential primary.
Wasserman Schultz's press secretary dropped her off at a barricade a block from the rally, and another staffer met her halfway, shouting instructions to her over the din of "Count! Our! Votes! A bounce in her step, the congresswoman disappeared into a thicket of placards and reappeared at the podium. "Do you think we can win Florida without counting Florida?" she yelled to the crowd. "No!" it yelled back. After a few similar refrains, she exited to cheers. Wasserman Schultz never mentioned Hillary Clinton to the crowd; she didn't have to.
Even before superdelegates had become a buzzword, Wasserman Schultz had locked in her vote for Clinton, whom she considers a role model. "Her generation, the effort and strides they have made, that's what made it possible for me to run for the state Legislature when I was 25 years old," Wasserman Schultz stresses. "The path they blazed made my success possible."
In a political season that has seen some of Clinton's staunchest allies defect to her glamorous rival, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Wasserman Schultz has emerged not just as an ally but as an enforcer. Back in March, when an Obama adviser, Samantha Power, referred to Clinton as a "monster," it was Wasserman Schultz who fired back, citing the remark as evidence that the Obama campaign's talk of hope smacked of hypocrisy. Soon after, Power stepped down.
Prominent Democrats, including South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, who as House majority whip works with Wasserman Schultz, have made public pleas for Clinton to tone down her attacks on Obama lest she cause a rift in the party coalition that cannot be fused in time for the general election.
An increasing number of superdelegates have thrown their support behind Obama citing not just the need for a unified party but their dismay at the negative tone of Clinton's campaign, which has tried to undermine support for Obama by suggesting he isn't prepared to assume the presidency and seizing on his associations with controversial figures such as his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Wasserman Schultz, on the other hand, has been unwavering in her support. "I don't think the tone of [Clinton's] campaign has been one way or the other," the congresswoman says. "She's been talking about issues that matter most to Americans: health care, Iraq, the economy."
Earlier this month, in the days leading up to the Indiana primary, Clinton's campaign touted a plan — originally championed by Republican nominee John McCain — calling for a suspension of the federal gas tax as a way of giving consumers a temporary break from fuel costs. Economists, politicians, and pundits were nearly unanimous in dismissing the plan as a pander. Wasserman Schultz went on cable news programs to defend Clinton. "I'm a minivan mom," she said on CNN's Larry King Live. "And the last time I filled up my minivan — the one I use to drive my kids around my district — it cost me $67. What Hillary's plan will do is put $70 potentially back into the pockets of people and make sure that they can put food on the table that week."
The following week, after the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, or NARAL, gave its endorsement to Obama, Wasserman Schultz made another appearance at the DNC headquarters. "We feel abandoned by this organization today," said the congresswoman, a leading proponent of women's reproductive rights. Later, she told an MSNBC reporter that NARAL made a "mistake beyond proportion."
But it is Wasserman Schultz's role in the wake of the Florida's primary-that-wasn't that has taken center stage in the past few weeks. Months ago, both Clinton and Obama accepted the DNC's ruling to strip Florida of its delegates, and both signed pledges vowing not to campaign in Florida. Of course, both sides would accuse the other of fudging on that pledge — Obama's national TV spots aired in Florida while Clinton made personal appearances at fundraisers.
In January, Clinton won the Florida primary with 50 percent of the vote to Obama's 33. She stood to gain some 36 pledged delegates and 300,000 votes. Counting those delegates and votes has become increasingly vital to Clinton's dimming hopes of persuading uncommitted superdelegates that she can catch Obama, whose victory in last week's Oregon primary gave him a seemingly insurmountable majority of pledged delegates heading into the August nominating convention.
Clinton spent an entire day in Florida last week, hoping to publicize her cause. Wasserman Schultz, meanwhile, provided some pointed media backup. "I think it's really disappointing that Barack Obama spoke to 15,000 Floridians today within the state and said absolutely nothing about whether he thinks Florida's delegation should be seated," she told Fox News. "In fact, he's never said from his mouth that Florida's delegation should be seated at the convention, and that's incredibly disappointing."
Clinton's last-ditch push to requalify the Florida results, and those from a similar primary in Michigan, has rankled party leaders, who had hoped to have a nominee months ago. Not only has Clinton pledged to stay in the race but she's stressed her appeal to white, rural, and working-class voters and voiced concerns about staking the party's presidential hopes on Obama, an African-American who has performed poorly among those voters.
All of this has placed Wasserman Schultz in a sticky situation. No one would question her desire to ensure that Floridians have a voice in the selection of the party's nominee for president. But her full-throated advocacy — particularly in the face of Clinton's original pledge not to campaign in Florida — has struck some as damaging to the party's chances of recapturing the White House.
"As Obama secures the nomination, the pressure is going to be on her to step up to the plate and work with the nominee," notes Joe Sudbay, a political consultant based in Washington, D.C., who is a frequent contributor to AMERICAblog.com.
For her part, Wasserman Schultz refuses to accept the prevailing math. Even as the media look ahead to an Obama/McCain matchup, she insists Clinton can and will prevail. And she sounds unconcerned about any political fallout. "I don't do things based on any supposed 'leadership track,' " she says. "I follow my heart. I stand up for what I believe in, and I believe in Hillary Clinton."
But if Obama did win? "I will be supportive of whomever the nominee will be and give him or her the full measure of my work ethic."
Her colleague, Rep. Robert Wexler, whose district spans portions of Broward and Palm Beach counties, is in the opposite position. As co-chair of Obama's Florida campaign, he stands to have closer ties to the White House if the Illinois senator wins in November. "It's wonderful to have a close relationship with the president when you're a member of Congress," says Eric Johnson, Wexler's chief of staff.
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.
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?"
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.
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."
But while schedules can be juggled to accommodate the kids' biggest events, Wasserman Schultz is haunted by the little ones that slip past her — like the Mother's Day tea scheduled for a Wednesday morning earlier this month. Wasserman Schultz's own mother attended in her place, and 4-year-old Shelby didn't seem to mind until the congresswoman called that night to ask how the tea time was and her daughter burst into tears. There's a lump in Wasserman Schultz's throat as she tells that story.
Still, she insists, "I can't extricate myself from being a mother — and I don't want to. I think it's an asset. I bring a worldview to the table that is significantly underrepresented in this body." Case in point: On that hectic April morning, shortly before the Count Our Votes rally, Wasserman Schultz received a visit from several lobbyists of the beverage manufacturing industry to her Capitol Hill office, which is, as you might expect, plastered with photos of her husband and kids. They cautioned her about a looming piece of legislation that would impose costly environmental regulations on their clients. But Wasserman Schultz was more concerned with another regulation. "I was at my daughter's diving practice Monday, which is at a high school in Cooper City, and I noticed there were vending machines full of every sugary drink." The lobbyists spent the rest of the meeting on the defensive and left shortly thereafter.
Indeed, it's hard to spend any time with Wasserman Schultz, especially in Washington, and not be taken aback by her indomitable energy. And given that Pelosi — a mother and a grandmother — is the person who controls her fate in Congress, it's hard to imagine that being a mom will be held against her. But Wasserman Schultz insists she isn't "angling" for a leadership post or looking beyond her current office in pursuit of a grander ambition.
"I realize the trajectory I'm on makes it seem that I'm after all this stuff, and I'm so grateful for the advances I've been able to make," she says, "but I'm really working this hard because of how much I care about advancing our [Democratic] agenda." To the extent she benefits from that by gaining a coveted appointment, "it just means I can help my district."
Her idealistic claims are not likely to stop Washington observers from speculating, given how far Wasserman Schultz has already come at such a young age. If there's one thing the heated 2008 Democratic primary contest has proven, it's that gender and race are no longer barriers to running for the highest office in the land.
And though Wasserman Schultz is not the sort for introspection, she does admit that her support for Hillary Clinton has given rise to a stubborn daydream, one in which she's walking down Pennsylvania Avenue with one of her daughters. "I want to be able to point at the Oval Office and say, 'A woman works there.' "
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.