Top Democrats are considering removing Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Congresswoman from south Florida, from her post — much to the delight of Bernie Sanders supporters. Many see Wasserman Schultz as a figurehead of the party establishment that is nakedly stacking the deck in favor of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Her weakened position testifies to the power of the Sanders insurgency — and contains an important lesson for the centrist wing of the Democratic Party.
Even as Wasserman Schultz struggles on the national level, she also faces a local challenge from her left back home. After getting Sanders’s endorsement, Democratic primary challenger Tim Canova, a half Jewish law professor, raised a quarter of a million dollars. The press has focused on him as a member of the rising class of Sanders-associated Democrats at the state level looking to reshape the Democratic Party into something more economically progressive.
Canova has made a name for himself as a critic of the Obama administration’s free trade policy, an opponent of the War of Drugs and, of concern especially to those living in the low-lying and hurricane-prone areas of south Florida, someone who’s looking to address climate change.
Even for the most optimistic of Sanders-aligned progressives, Canova has a mighty big climb to become the next representative of Florida’s 23rd district, which includes Miami Beach and the lower section of suburban Broward County. The Miami area districts all voted for Clinton in the primary by whopping margins; conventional logic would dictate that even if Wasserman Schultz is working for the Clinton camp, that might not hurt her on the state’s primary day, August 30.
But Canova has remained confident, and the idea that Wasserman Schultz’s leadership position is in peril casts further doubt on the rest of her political career. Canova and his supporters have put her in the crosshairs not just because of the role she has played in the race between Sanders and Clinton, but because she represents the same kind of venality that so negatively defines Clinton.
For example, Wasserman Schultz’s opposition to medical marijuana has been linked to her funding from alcohol companies who are keen to keep a monopoly on legal intoxicants. Canova has also accused his opponent of acting on behalf of big banks on issues such as stymieing consumer protections and regulating payday loans.
Even with Sanders not gaining the nomination, a great many Americans have said that they’ve had enough of this kind of quid pro quo in Washington. The anger is no longer directed only at the big financial institutions and corporate lobbies, but also at the elected officials who do their bidding. One of the best aspects of this primary cycle is that the Sanders challenge has put names to faces in this kind of insider political system.
And Wasserman Schultz being on the receiving end of that anger is telling. There aren’t many areas in the United States outside of the New York City metropolitan area where Jewish leadership is a consistent part of the political landscape, but the area around Miami — the stereotype too often being well-off retirees and snowbirds from up north — is one of them. Wasserman Schultz’s congressional neighbors are Democrats Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel.
And while Wasserman Schultz isn’t the first Jewish woman to head the Democratic National Committee, she has been one of the most visible and fought-over DNC leaders in recent memory. Wasserman Schultz has also been in the job since 2011, holding onto the post longer than most of her predecessors.
The question of her leadership, and the primary challenge against her, signals a shift in a major part of American Jewish political power.
Canova is from a mixed Jewish and Catholic background, and as several news outlets reported, his worldview — like Sanders’s — was shaped in part by working on an Israeli kibbutz.
The shifts in the Democratic voting base have been readily apparent. Sanders, who is all but certain not to get the nomination, will still go down as the most successful Jewish contender for the American presidency in recent memory, and interestingly enough, his biggest impact on the Democratic Party and the entire political discourse has been to bring working-class interests back to the forefront. Given his influence on the party’s platform committee, he has also propelled a discussion of the Middle East that focuses much more on the plight of Palestinians.
If anything, the fact that Clinton has had to fight until the California primary in June to deal a finishing punch to win the nomination is a testament not just to how much the party underestimated Sanders’s challenge, but to how many Democratic voters (as well as independents who entered the party primaries this go-around) reject the neoliberal consensus of the Clinton dynasty, embrace class consciousness and are voting against the status quo of brutal economic inequality.
Even if Wasserman Schultz returns to the House of Representatives next year, she will either come out of it without her DNC title or remain in a battered position, having fended off left-wing criticism in her district and nationally. In that sense, her diminished status will be a lasting legacy of the Sanders insurgency.
It will be a very tough reminder to the centrist wing of the Democratic Party that it no longer has the kind of grip on the party that it once had, and that the party better get used to moving to the left, lest more leaders meet the same kind of fate as Wasserman Schultz.
Ari Paul is a journalist in New York City who has covered politics for The Nation, The Guardian and many other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @AriPaul