Florida’s Hurricane Force in the House
Wasserman Schultz Keeps Busy
It is quite possible that Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) wears more hats in Congress than any other second-term Member.
The 41-year-old South Florida Congresswoman is an Appropriations Committee cardinal, is a Chief Deputy Majority Whip, holds two leadership roles at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and is a visible presence on the floor as part of the 30-Something Working Group. On top of that, she is the mother to three children younger than 10, which, as she makes sure to note, ranks above all of her other jobs.
And next Congress, she could have yet another hat to add to the pile.
Her political activity this cycle has caught the attention of many of her colleagues, including party leaders, and she has emerged as a leading contender to take the reins of the DCCC from current Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who does not plan to serve another term at the committee.
Wasserman Schultz is currently one of three co-chairmen of the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” program, which directs funds to Democratic challengers and candidates for open seats, and she also serves as co-chairwoman of the committee’s “Frontline” program, which raises money for vulnerable incumbents.
So far this cycle, she has funneled more than $5.2 million into the war chests of the DCCC and Democratic candidates through her fundraising and direct contributions.
She chalks up her ability to juggle multiple duties to her desire to be a team player and a constant need to be busy.
“I believe that if you can help, you should, and so I put all of my extra time — that I’m not being my children’s mom — into trying to help advance our cause,” she said in an interview Thursday, before departing the Capitol for a campaign stop in New Jersey that evening. “Whether that’s on the political side, or trying to move our agenda on the House floor.”
As for a future as DCCC chairwoman, Wasserman Schultz said she has her eyes trained exclusively on her current roles.
“I’m focused on getting my Frontline colleagues re-elected and expanding our majority through the Red to Blue program,” she said. “Look, I came here honestly to roll up my sleeves and work hard. And it’s very flattering for people to even mention that possibility. But I just want to do my job and do it well.”
Unlike House Republicans’ campaign chief — who is elected to run the party’s political operation — the DCCC chairman is appointed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and traditionally there is no public jockeying for the position.
Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.) has also been heavily involved with the DCCC the past two cycles and could be in the mix for the 2010 cycle.
Reps. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) and Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) share visible roles with Wasserman Schultz in the 30-Something Working Group and are also viewed as rising stars, but have not been as politically active as she has.
Reps. Joe Crowley (N.Y.) and Mike Thompson (Calif.) have been mentioned as possible DCCC heads before, but their interest at this point is unclear.
“She’s right up there,” a senior Democratic leadership aide said of Wasserman Schultz.
House Democrats appear poised to pick up more seats in the 2008 elections. But Van Hollen said last week he has little desire for a repeat performance in the 2010 cycle.
“I’m not planning on another go-round,” he said last week. “I usually don’t believe in term limits, but in this case I do.”
Elected in 2004, Wasserman Schultz was turning heads even before she got to Washington, D.C.
“She was giving money [to the DCCC] as a candidate,” said the leadership aide. “You could tell right away that she was going to be a force.”
Once she arrived, it didn’t take long for Wasserman Schultz to get noticed as a rising star in the party’s next generation of leadership.
She was the only freshman asked to join the Democratic whip team and also immediately took an active role in the DCCC, becoming co-chairwoman of Red to Blue.
“You come here as a freshman and the impression is that you are going to toil in the wilderness as a freshman for a long time until you earn your seniority, and that is true to a certain degree,” she said. “But the response that I’ve gotten is that if you are willing to work hard, that they will reward you.”
For some longtime Democratic insiders there is great irony in Wasserman Schultz’s aggressive political activity and involvement in the DCCC. Her predecessor and mentor, former Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), was notorious for not sharing his massive campaign war chest, even when party leaders asked him to.
Deutsch lost a primary bid for Senate in 2004, and Wasserman Schultz was elected to succeed her one-time boss.
The luxury of coming from a reliably Democratic district in South Florida adds to her ability to focus her political efforts on helping House Democrats, but she is also an active force in Florida politics. She has keynoted four Democratic Jefferson Jackson Day dinners in counties outside of her district this cycle and is currently playing a leading role in Florida’s fight to get their delegates seated at the Democratic National Convention. Wasserman Schultz was an early supporter of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) presidential bid.
“I don’t know her secret, but I know she does a damn good job with the balancing act,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who also praised his colleague as an unrelenting force to be reckoned with in the state and on the Hill.
Hastings said Wasserman Schultz might wait until her children are a little older before taking on the DCCC job, the demands of which are not very family friendly.
“Personally, I’d be very happy if she could do that, become the chairman,” Hastings said. “But my personal recommendation would be not to do it.”
Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.), one of Wasserman Schultz’s housemates in a house owned by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), agreed the Florida Democrat deserves to be considered for the DCCC job.
“People respect her,” she said. “She’s connected across the board.”
Indeed, Wasserman Schultz has shown an ability to transcend the different cultural and ideological divisions within the Democratic Caucus, a helpful attribute for any DCCC chairman. But her aggressive style rubs some of her colleagues the wrong way.
“She is sharp, intelligent and perceived by some as too aggressive,” Hastings said.
Wasserman Schultz — a former student Senate president at the University of Florida first elected to the Florida Legislature at age 26 — has shown equal skill in navigating the politics of her party’s leadership.
Initially, Wasserman Schultz was viewed as a close ally of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the person who picked her as a freshman to be part of the whip team.
But over time she has developed an equally close relationship with Pelosi, whom she describes as being motherly toward her.
“She just has given me every opportunity to be in a position as someone in the next generation, to be in a position to help lead in the direction that we’re going,” Wasserman Schultz said.
She also has a good relationship with Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), whom she worked closely with last cycle when he was head of the DCCC.
Still, all of her high-profile political activity hasn’t been without some recent controversy.
The Miami Herald ran a story in early March about how Wasserman Schultz and Meek felt that they couldn’t work aggressively to help three Democratic challengers who are targeting the state’s three Cuban-American incumbents because of their relationships with GOP Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Subsequently, the liberal blogosphere exploded with charges of treason directed at Wasserman Schultz because of her party leadership role.
She “is supposed to head the DCCC program to turn Red districts Blue — a noble cause given what is at stake these elections,” Daily Kos blog founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga wrote in a March 19 post. “But she has tarnished that cause by letting her personal ‘friendship’ with Republicans standing in the way of progress and the betterment of lives get in the way of her ability to properly do her job.”
Wasserman Schultz concedes now that she didn’t choose her words well, and she asserted that she is currently trying to help the Democratic challengers meet the criteria for inclusion in the Red to Blue program.
“I have not endorsed and will not endorse the Republican incumbents and do not support their re-elections,” she said. “I’m being as supportive as I can be of those three [Democratic] candidates. And I will be even more helpful if any of them make Red to Blue.”