Lady of the House | New Times Broward-Palm Beach


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.