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Lady of the House

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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.

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Thomas Francis

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