Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s ascension to the top post at the Democratic National Committee has won resounding praise from House Democrats, who now have a colleague leading the DNC for the first time in decades. But the shift also creates a set of challenges.
Wasserman Schultz’s promotion leaves a hole at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, where she was a top fundraiser and recruiter. Roll Call has learned she was expected to raise $4 million for the DCCC, trailing only Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and two others.
And at least one top Democrat suggests that the outspoken Florida Congresswoman may lose some autonomy, in addition to having limited ability to help her House colleagues, as she moves to an institution largely dedicated to doing the White House’s bidding.
“She’s a very, very capable woman. She has a lot of energy,” said Donald Fowler, who served as DNC general chairman alongside former Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) in 1995 and 1996, the last time a Member of Congress held the chairmanship. “But as chair of the party, the Congresswoman’s allegiance will be to the White House. ... In all matters related to the DNC, the White House calls the tune. I believe that if anybody thinks that somehow the House has won a new institutional influence on the White House, they’re mistaken.”
As was the case with Dodd, Wasserman Schultz is expected to have relatively limited involvement in day-to-day operations at the DNC, serving instead as the chief fundraiser and mouthpiece for Democrats’ premier campaign machine.
Even in that role, Dodd’s ability to balance his DNC and Senate responsibilities was strained at times, especially as the presidential campaign moved into full swing, according to Fowler, who is now back in South Carolina.
Following Wasserman Schultz’s Tuesday promotion, however, national Democrats expressed near-unanimous confidence in the 44-year-old mother-of-three and cancer survivor’s ability to be successful.
“There have been a number of people who have served in elected office and chaired the DNC at the same time — and Members from both sides of the aisle serve in Congress and run their party’s respective political committees with great success,” one Democratic official said. “There is not a scintilla of doubt that she can perform both roles with flying colors.”
Indeed, close friend and former Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) told Roll Call Wednesday that Wasserman Schultz is perhaps the most determined person she has ever met.
“As her former roommate, I saw that if she has to sacrifice a little sleep, she’ll do it,” Bean said. “What I’ve seen from Debbie is that whatever she takes on she delivers successfully.”
One of those things she had taken on in recent years was a prominent role at the DCCC, where she will be missed.
Wasserman Schultz served as the national chairwoman for Member and candidate services this cycle and held a similar role last cycle. She was also part of the organization’s recruiting committee and led the Red to Blue program.
She was expected to be among the DCCC’s top four fundraisers in the 2011-12 cycle, according to updated dues and fundraising totals obtained by Roll Call. And she was already among the top 10 fundraisers in the first quarter of 2011.
Wasserman Schultz raised $178,000 for the DCCC and an additional $250,000 for the committee’s Frontline and Red to Blue programs. The figures obtained by Roll Call show she was expected to raise $4 million for the DCCC this cycle alone. Only three members — Pelosi and New York Reps. Steve Israel and Joe Crowley — had higher targets.
DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider acknowledged that Wasserman Schultz “was a strong member of our aggressive DCCC fundraising team.”
“While we miss her talents, with record Member participation this year, Members are already stepping up,” Crider added, calling Wasserman Schultz’s post at the DNC “good news for House Democrats.”
Democratic strategist and lobbyist John Michael Gonzalez said it has been years since House Democrats had an “institutional connection” this strong to the DNC.
“This is a huge thing. I think Members will love it,” he said. “I think the only challenge might be ... Members saying, ‘We need the DNC in X,Y or Z state.’ But if that state’s not a battleground state, that’s really going to be where Debbie’s ability to be disciplined comes into play.”
Her House Democratic Caucus colleagues said Wednesday that she’d be an asset.
“Maybe now we’ll have a voice and someone who is going to know the situation that us Members have in our races and why that kind of protection and that kind of concern is important,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
He also predicted that Wasserman Schultz would be helpful during the redistricting fight. “Hopefully we’ll have someone who will listen to us, particularly those of us in the Hispanic Caucus and the Black Caucus,” he said.
Among those diverse groups is the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, of which Rep. Jim Costa is a member. The California Democrat, who like Wasserman Schultz was elected in 2004, said the new DNC chairwoman “is going to have to make efforts to communities throughout the country that reflect those Congressional districts that we lost last year.”
“Those are the swing seats, those constituents are looking for moderate, problem-solving people, and they had a reaction certainly to what was going on last year and some of the overreach,” he said. “That constituency is different than Debbie’s constituency.”
He added that in her other roles she’s campaigned elsewhere, so he’s confident “she’s well-aware” of those differences.
Fowler, meanwhile, said he’s curious to learn how Wasserman Schultz handles the chairmanship.
“When you have the president of your party, the DNC is never an independent agent,” he said.
“It’s not to say that they can’t influence the White House, but overwhelmingly, the flow of influence and control is from the White House to the DNC,” Fowler said.
“It will be interesting to see how that is defined and how that plays out with Debbie’s new role. That’s something you might want to watch.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.