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Lady of the House

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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.

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Thomas Francis

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