Florida Democrat’s Star Rising

By Jennifer Siegel

Published December 01, 2006, issue of December 01, 2006.
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Newly re-elected to a second term in the U.S. House of Representatives, a Jewish lawmaker from Florida is vying for a seat on one of the most powerful committees in Congress and is a candidate for a high-profile Democratic campaign post.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a good government liberal who is commonly viewed as a Democratic rising star, is seeking to join the House Ways and Means Committee, the panel responsible for originating all federal tax legislation. Among her rivals for a spot is another Jewish woman, Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Pennsylvania, who, like Wasserman Schultz, was first elected in 2004 and belongs to the centrist New Democratic Coalition.

Wasserman Schultz is also rumored to be on the shortlist for the new head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the body that provides financial and strategic support to the party’s House candidates.

Having burst onto the national scene as a forceful opponent of congressional intervention during the 2005 Terri Schiavo controversy, Wasserman Schultz, 40, has quickly shot to prominence: A senior whip who is the only freshman among the House Democratic leadership, the lawmaker was chosen by current DCCC Chair Rep. Rahm Emanuel to co-chair a key program that boosted the party’s most competitive challengers. On Election night, Wasserman Schultz shared the stage with — and was lauded by — House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

Now, as Emanuel — the son of an Israeli émigré who entered national politics as one of the whiz kids of Bill Clinton’s 1992 president campaign — finds his own star rising in the wake of the party’s November success, Wasserman Schultz seems determined to advance, in his mold, as a tireless party loyalist.

“I’m just going to continue to be a team player,” Wasserman Schultz said when asked by the Forward about her prospects of winning the DCCC chairmanship. “I’m just interested in continuing to help the Democratic caucus be successful and for us to expand our majority beyond our success on November 7.”

A petite blonde who was raised on Long Island but attended the University of Florida, Wasserman Schultz was speaking from her daughters’ school in Weston, Fla., where she was waiting to ferry the kids to soccer practice. The legislator began her political career as an aide to former Rep. Peter Deutsch, and in 1992, at age 26, she became the youngest woman ever elected to the Florida House of Representatives.

At the time, University of Florida political science professor Richard Scher recalled, the Democratic Party in Florida “was completely out of gas.” Wasserman Schultz “came along, along with several others… who definitely understood the need for organizing the party at the grass-roots level. [Rebuilding] is a slow process, but Debbie has been one of the leaders.”

Wasserman Schultz served in the Florida legislature for 12 years, and faced only token Republican opposition in 2004, when she ran for the U.S. House in the heavily Jewish and Democratic 20th district, which stretches northward from Miami to Hollywood. At her swearing-in ceremony, she insisted on using a Hebrew Bible instead of the standard Christian one.

Last month, the Florida legislator ran unopposed. Her fortunes in the coming Congress will depend, in large part, on the preferences of Pelosi, who appoints the chair of the DCCC. In addition to Wasserman Schultz, rumored candidates for the position include fellow Florida lawmaker Kendrick Meek, as well as Reps. Mike Thompson of California, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Artur Davis of Alabama, who also served as deputies to Emanuel during this election cycle.

While committee assignments are managed through the Steering and Policy Committee, Pelosi is also expected to exert great influence over the process.

According to Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute, Wasserman Schultz has a good chance at securing one of the more than half-dozen new Democratic seats expected to open up on the Ways and Means Committee.

“She’s been extremely active in party activities and campaign stuff, and that will work to her advantage,” Ornstein said. “There’s no way, especially given that 149 members voted for Steny, that they’re going to be able to deny all of them prominent positions in the leadership.”

The House Democrats are expected to make committee assignments in the coming weeks, and while the exact number of spots designated to each party has not yet been determined, Democrats are likely to gain about eight spots on Ways and Means. Seats on the committee — which has jurisdiction over all taxation, tariffs and other revenue-raising measures, as well as on trade agreements and such programs as Social Security and Medicare — are highly coveted.

Wasserman Schultz and Pennsylvania’s Schwartz both have written Pelosi requesting the assignment. Wasserman Schultz also has strong backing from her state delegation, which also has been united in backing Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings for the chairmanship of the Intelligence committee, despite controversy surrounding his removal from a federal judgeship in 1989. Last week, the group sent a letter to Pelosi supporting Wasserman Schultz’s Ways and Means bid.

In response to an inquiry from the Forward about whether Pelosi backs Wasserman Schultz for the appointment, a spokesperson wrote in an e-mail that the selection process is in its “initial stages.” Spokespeople for New York Rep. Charles Rangel, the committee’s incoming chairman, as well as for Emanuel, also declined to comment. Ornstein said that Wasserman Schultz’s chances are enhanced by the fact that she hails from Florida — an important political battleground that is the nation’s fourth-largest state. Unless a new appointment is made, Florida will have no representation on the committee in the coming Congress, due to the loss of Republican committee members Mark Foley and Clay Shaw.

Wasserman Schultz said that her priorities on the Ways and Means Committee would include relieving the tax burden on the middle class and looking carefully at pending trade agreements.

“I’m certainly not a protectionist,” Wasserman Schultz said, echoing the centrist, conciliatory message of the current Democratic leadership. At the same time “we’ve got to have some balance between ensuring that businesses can thrive internationally, and also that workers are protected, and I don’t think that recent trade policy has had that balance, but I think it’s entirely possible.”

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