“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.
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.”
Ari Fleischer, who was a White House spokesman for President George W. Bush and a leading Republican Jewish speaker, said that while Wasserman Schultz is successful in firing up the base, she “comes across [as] [terribly ineffective” because she does not meet the requirement of being “reasonable and focused.”
But Wasserman Schultz’s style has reportedly irked some within her party, as well. An e-book published by Politico in August claimed](http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0812/79867_Page3.html#ixzz25Jg021hU) that officials in the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago feel that Wasserman Schultz “struck too harsh a partisan tone.” It also stated that in an internal focus group examining the effectiveness of Obama surrogates, she was ranked last.
Following this report, the White House said Obama has “absolutely” full confidence in Wasserman Schultz.
In her interview with the Forward, Wasserman Schultz strongly rejected suggestions that she adopt a softer tone and show more willingness to compromise. “I’m the chair of the Democratic Party. That is not in the job description of someone who chairs a political party,” she said.
Fellow Floridian Robert Wexler agreed. The former congressman, who serves as a surrogate for Obama among Jewish voters, said that criticism of Wasserman Schultz is simply a sign of her success. “When you’re very effective, you also get very stern criticism,” he said, “I think it is a badge of honor.”
Back in Charlotte there were no signs at all that the campaign is trying to sideline Wasserman Schultz. The DNC chair hopped from one reception to another panel discussion, from strategy meetings to one-on-ones with donors. Her three children followed her to the convention, watching from the front row as their mother chaired the event.
Four years ago, Wasserman Schultz was given the honor of seconding Obama’s nomination at the 2008 convention. “I thought, wow, this is really the pinnacle, and here I am, four years later,” she said. She will not speculate on where she’ll be four years from now. “I am not thinking beyond the next 63 days,” she said. “We have to get him elected, and I’m running for re-election, and we’ll see what happens.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.