Charlotte, N.C. — “What time do we have to be there?” Debbie Wasserman Schultz, arguably the busiest person at the Democratic convention, asked her aides as their car struggled through throngs of delegates and supporters on the street. Finally she decided to ditch the car and continue on foot, although it was clear that the convention would not begin without her. Moments later, Wasserman Schultz, as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, gaveled the convention to order from her podium at the center of the stage.
Growing up, she told the Forward, “we talked around our kitchen table at dinner — that a little girl can grow up in America and be anything she wanted to be, even president of the United States, or, I guess, chair of the Democratic National Committee. But no, in my wildest dreams I would not have anticipated this, not in a trillion years.”
At 45, the fiery Jewish congresswoman from Florida is at the epicenter of Democratic politics, managing a “triple booked” schedule, as her aides put it, to ensure that all constituencies are on board with President Obama, and fighting in the trenches of Sunday talk shows in the sound-bite wars against Republican rivals.
The road to becoming the most powerful woman in the Democratic Party heirarchy has won Wasserman Schultz many admirers in the Jewish community and in party circles, but also some detractors. Critics find her style combative and at times abrasive, and feel that her effectiveness in motivating the Democratic base comes at the expense of welcoming swing voters.
“She’s dynamite,” Florida convention delegate Patricia King said. “I hear people say she is not relating to the rest of the public, but for me, it’s like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Wasserman Schultz’s central task as party chair is bringing together the Democratic effort to re-elect Obama, “to watch his back and bring him across the finish line,” as she describes it. This portfolio includes making sure that her own personal constituency of Jewish voters in Florida maintains its level of support for Obama in November. Polls show this to be a formidable undertaking, as Jewish support for the president could drop 5 to 10 percentage points from the 74% support he received in 2008. Campaign calculations presented at the Democratic convention show that a dip of 10 percentage points in Florida Jewish support could cost the Democrats 85,000 votes. That could be crucial in a state that is now practically tied.
Wasserman Schultz does not see Obama as having a “Jewish problem,” not even in her home state. When talking to Jewish voters and activists, as she frequently does, Wasserman Schultz forges an immediate bond, throwing in stories about her mishpacha (family), her Jewish upbringing and being a Jewish mother.