PHILADELPHIA (JTA) — Under fire for emails showing rancor between the Democratic National Committee and the Bernie Sanders campaign, Debbie Wasserman Schultz is stepping down as party chairwoman, but will join Hillary Clinton’s campaign in a senior role.
Wasserman Schultz announced Sunday afternoon that she would step down at the end of the week, when the Democratic convention concludes in Philadelphia.
Republican nominee Donald Trump and backers of Sanders, Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nod until several weeks ago, cast her resignation as a result of hacked DNC emails that showed tensions between Wasserman Schultz and the Sanders campaign.
Pro-Sanders delegates in Philadelphia were reported to have cheered with the release of the news, and Trump, in a tweet, said she was “overrated.”
Statements from Wasserman Schultz, from Clinton and from President Barack Obama did not indicate she was forced into leaving earlier than she planned, although an insider said she had hoped to stick it out through the November election.
Wasserman Schultz, in a statement, said she wanted to focus on her congressional seat in South Florida, where she is facing a robust primary challenge by a Sanders backer, law professor Tim Canova. “My first priority has always been serving the people of the 23rd district of Florida and I look forward to continuing to do that as their member of Congress for years to come,” she said.
Wasserman Schultz stepping down from the top job would remove a potential source of friction just as the convention is set to start. Sanders is set to speak Monday night with a call to his supporters to back Clinton and defeat Donald Trump.
There could yet be tension; earlier Sunday, CNN had reported that Wasserman Schultz would disappear from the convention; in her statement, Wasserman Schultz said she would retain a convention leadership role and speak. Additionally, Clinton, in a statement, said Wasserman Schultz would join her campaign as a senior surrogate, and would chair the campaign’s efforts to get Democrats elected down-ticket.
However, Jeff Weaver, the Sanders campaign chairman whom Wasserman Schultz had called an “ass” in one of the emails, told MSNBC that the resignation was a smart move, signaling that Sanders supporters were set to end the tensions.
Wasserman Schultz, first elected to Congress in 2004 and party chairwoman since 2011, has made her Jewish identity central to her political career. In her first term, she drafted and led passage of the 2006 law creating Jewish American Heritage Month, has led legislation to provide assistance to Holocaust survivors, and was considered must-co-opt by both sides in last year’s debate over the Iran nuclear deal precisely because of her prominence in the Jewish community. (Breaking into tears during a TV interview, she backed the plan.) In past years, Wasserman Schultz has proved an effective surrogate for presidential candidates both to the Jewish community and on women’s issues. A mother of three, she is a breast cancer survivor.
Sanders has called for her to step down for months, and did so again Sunday in the wake of the email leaks. He believed that she rigged the primary process against him, in part by how she set the original debate schedule, with just five debates, many of them broadcast on nights with poor viewership. The reasoning then was that Clinton was a poor debater.
Clinton, however, performed well in the debates, and soon more were added to the schedule. Additionally, Wasserman Schultz slotted five Sanders loyalists on the platform drafting committee, a key Sanders demand.
Nonetheless, Sanders, who also blamed Wasserman Schultz for favoring closed primaries – much of his support came from non-Democrats – continued to call for her to step down. The Democratic establishment ignored the calls until Friday, when Wikileaks released thousands of DNC emails believed to have been hacked by Russians.
The emails clearly show that the DNC staff favored Clinton, recording several proposals to undermine Sanders, although there is evidence that some of these were rejected, and no evidence that others were carried through. One of the abortive proposals included a suggestion by the DNC finance chief, Brad Marshall, that surrogates depict Sanders as an atheist who strayed from his Jewish roots. Sanders is not an atheist and still embraces his Jewish heritage. Marshall apologized over the weekend.
Obama, who named her to the post in 2011, lavished praise on her on Sunday.
“Her fundraising and organizing skills were matched only by her passion, her commitment and her warmth,” he said. “And no one works harder for her constituents in Congress than Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Michelle and I are grateful for her efforts, we know she will continue to serve our country as a member of Congress from Florida and she will always be our dear friend.”