Two of the most prominent Jewish Democrats are engaged in an ugly battle, which is playing out on national TV, at party headquarters, and on the battlefield of a Florida congressional district.
Bernie Sanders, the progressive presidential candidate and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, are locked in a bitter dispute. The feud has boiled over into an outburst of accusations between Sanders and his supporters and Wasserman Schultz, who represents in their eyes everything that’s wrong in what they see as the “rigged” system.
Over the weekend, the clash reached Wasserman Schultz’s home front in Florida, when Sanders announced his endorsement of law professor Tim Canova, a longshot challenger in the Democratic primary.
“The political revolution is not just about electing a president, sisters and brothers,” Sanders’ campaign stated in an email it send soliciting funds for Canova. “We need a Congress with members who believe, like Bernie, that we cannot change a corrupt system by taking its money.” Sanders added in an interview with CNN Saturday: “Well, clearly, I favor her opponent,” explaining that Canova’s views “are much closer to mine than as to Wasserman Schultz’s.”
“It was very unexpected, a nice surprised,” Canova told the Forward in an interview several hours after Sanders made his public endorsement. “I’m very proud.”
This will be the first time Wasserman Schultz, a popular congresswoman who reached the highest ranks of Democratic party leadership, has been challenged in a Democratic primary since she was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2004.
The battle in the southern Florida congressional race is playing out, to some extent, as a proxy war between the Democratic establishment supportive of Clinton and the insurgent progressive campaign ran by Sanders, though both Wasserman Schultz and Canova insisted they are not proxies for the two presidential candidates.
“Even though Senator Sanders has endorsed my opponent I remain, as I have been from the beginning, neutral in the Presidential Democratic primary,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “I look forward to working together with him for Democratic victories in the fall.”
“Bernie’s not on the ballot and Hillary is not on the ballot,” Canova said. “The only ones on the ballot are me and Wasserman Schultz.”
Wasserman Schultz’s meteoric ascent in Democratic politics captured the hearts of her constituents and served as a special source of pride for the area’s Jewish voters who make up an estimated 15% of her district . In Washington, Wasserman Schultz, the first Jewish woman to represent Florida in Congress, was the driving force behind the proclamation of an annual Jewish American history month in May and has become a leading voice of Jewish Democrats. She won her reelection campaigns handedly, a result, her supporters say, of the time she spends in Florida despite her DNC position and of her close ties with constituents.
Canova, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, is challenging Wasserman Schultz from the left. His progressive campaign against the sitting congresswoman resembles in many ways that of Sanders to against Clinton, including the emphasis put on perils of trade agreements, big money in politics, and protection of low-income Americans.
But when it comes to Israel and the Middle East, Canova is trying to take on Wasserman Schultz from the right.
“She voted for the Iran deal and I’m against the agreement,” he said, voicing criticism of the deal details in a way that echoed many of the talking points raised by hawkish Republicans.
During the Iran debate last summer Wasserman Schultz held out almost until the last minute before throwing her support behind the plan. Torn between her loyalty to President Obama and doubts about the deal, the Florida congresswoman voiced her reservations publically, held hours of conversations with top administration officials, and even hosted Vice President Joe Biden at a meeting with Jewish leaders in her district to deliberate the deal.
Canova believes that his staunch opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal and support for Israel could help him make inroads to Florida Jewish voters. And he also has some biographical items that could help out: Canova grew up with a Jewish stepfather (“we had a Christmas tree with a Star of David on top,”) visited Israel many times, including recently with a conservative think tank, and lived for several months on a kibbutz (yet another similarity to Sander, though Canova, as opposed to his endorser, still remembers the name of the kibbutz he worked on.)
“I’m already meeting with rabbis and local Jewish leaders,” he said, while noting that he has yet to translate that into public support. “Folks are afraid of her,” Canova said. Even before Sanders officially stepped in, the primary race began drawing national attention after Canova announced this month passing the $1 million fundraising milestone. This still falls short of Wasserman Schultz’s $1.8 million, but still offers the challenger the needed resources to mount an effective campaign.
Just how serious is the challenge? Serious enough to send Biden down to Florida to campaign for Wasserman Schultz and for Obama to issue an endorsement.
Wasserman Schultz declined to be interviewed for this article.
Beyond the primary fight brewing in her home district, Wasserman Schultz is in the midst of a heated dispute on the national level. Sanders has accused the DNC led by Wasserman Schultz of favoring Clinton in the battle over the party nomination. This bias, the Sanders camp argues, manifested itself in scheduling of debates in a way that would benefit Clinton, in unfairly dividing the delegates to the convention, and in closing many of the state primaries to exclude independents.
Tensions then increased when Wasserman Schultz accused Sanders of not doing enough to condemn his supporters who broke up the Nevada Democratic convention earlier this month. Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver angrily responded, accusing the DNC chair of “throwing shade on the Sanders campaign from the very beginning.”
“Do I think she is the kind of chair that the Democratic Party needs? No, I don’t,” Sanders said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” The Vermont Jewish senator also vowed to replace Wasserman Schultz as DNC chair, if elected president.
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.