Wasserman Schultz Puts Fire on Display

Lessons From Jewish Upringing Help Steer Path for Obama

Convention Kingmaker: Debbie Wasserman Schultz wields the gavel at the Democratic National Convention. Despite some grumbling about her style, the DNC chair has steered a successful path toward the November election.
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Convention Kingmaker: Debbie Wasserman Schultz wields the gavel at the Democratic National Convention. Despite some grumbling about her style, the DNC chair has steered a successful path toward the November election.

By Nathan Guttman

Published September 06, 2012, issue of September 14, 2012.
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She also forcefully makes the case against what many Jewish political observers refer to as the “kishkes factor,” the gut feeling that still makes Jewish voters suspicious about Obama. “I looked into the president’s kishkes, so to speak, and know how strongly he feels about it,” Wasserman Schultz said in an interview that began in her hotel, continued in the elevator and ended in her car as she rushed to the convention. She sees Republicans “sowing seeds of doubt” among Jewish voters on the issue of Obama and Israel because they “can’t get anywhere with Jewish voters on domestic issues.”

Wasserman Schultz is the first woman to be nominated by the full party as chair of the DNC and one of a handful of Jews to hold the position. It’s a choice, she said, that reflects the “recognition by the president of the United States that Jewish voters were important and that women voters were important.”

A native of Queens who grew up on Long Island, Wasserman Schultz first showed an interest in politics when she ran for and was elected president of the University of Florida student body. By age 26 she was already a Florida state legislator, the youngest in the state’s history.

Wasserman Schultz’s introduction to Jewish politics came in 1992, when, while still serving as a state lawmaker, she joined the National Jewish Democratic Council as its director of Florida operations. Steve Gutow, who headed the organization at the time, recalls hiring an energetic field organizer with “a wonderful presence” who threw a successful Matzo Ball singles party for activists, featuring top Democratic speakers.

Wasserman Schultz was elected to the House of Representatives in 2004 and quickly became a prominent voice on women’s rights and on health care. She often told audiences the personal story of her struggle with breast cancer, which made her understand that she was “one job loss away from losing my health insurance.” At the same time, she kept a Jewish agenda prominently among her priorities. Together with former Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter, Wasserman Schultz initiated Jewish American Heritage Month, which is now noted each May with a White House reception and various events. She has been named to the Forward 50 list of influential American Jews multiple times.

As she climbed through the ranks of the Democratic Party, Wasserman Schultz’s partisan tone drew increasing attention and criticism from rival Republicans, even within the Jewish community. Last May, a synagogue in Miami disinvited Wasserman Schultz following objections from one of the synagogue’s main donors. On the national level, her harsh rebuke of the Republican Party’s policy, specifically on women’s issues, made her a target of pundit criticism. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee drew laughs at the Republican convention when he complained of an “awful noise” in his hotel, which he said turned out to be “just Debbie Wasserman Schultz, practicing her speech for the Democratic National Convention.” To which the DNC chair responded by saying that Huckabee “has a problem with strong women.”


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