How Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the ‘Jewish mother’ of Congress, rose and fell


PHILADELPHIA (JTA) — When Debbie Wasserman Schultz spoke Monday morning to the Florida delegation as the national Democratic convention got underway, some delegates cheered.

Other delegates booed.

The chaos at the Marriott Hotel here demonstrated the degree to which the Florida congresswoman, perhaps the party’s most prominent Jewish leader, had become a divisive figure since she emerged a decade ago as the tyro no one in the party could praise enough.

Wasserman Schultz, 49, was forced over the weekend to step down as the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, a post she has held since 2011, after leaked emails revealed that she and other DNC insiders had little love lost for Clinton’s primary campaign challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Wasserman Schultz appeared game at the breakfast, overcoming the noise to say she appreciated “a little bit of interest” in her presence.

“We know that the voices in this room that are standing up and being disruptive, the Florida we know is united” in backing Clinton, she said over cries of “Shame!”

It couldn’t have been easy for Wasserman Schultz: The political leader most out front with her Jewishness must now contend with the fact that the most significant setback in her career came in part because an aide had questioned whether Sanders, the first Jewish candidate to win major nominating contests, was Jewish enough.

The chaos Monday was a radically different scene from the first day of her second term in Congress, in January 2007, when Wasserman Schultz commandeered one of the larger rooms on the ground floor of the Cannon U.S. House of Representatives Office building for her reelection party.

Snagging the room was a bold move for a sophomore just turned 40 in a congressional pecking order that at times seems like high school in perpetuity, but she could get away with it: She was the third top fundraiser among Democrats that election year, pulling in $15 million, trailing only Reps. Nancy Pelosi of California, the first female speaker in House history, and Rahm Emanuel of Illinois.

Pelosi rewarded Wasserman Schultz with a spot on the powerful Appropriations Committee, rare for a sophomore, and with the title of deputy whip.

But the theme of the party in Cannon was unmistakably Jewish. Staff approached guests to reassure them that the pastrami, imported from a deli in Wasserman Schultz’s South Florida district, was kosher. And the walls were lined with headlines touting a triumph that meant more to her than all the titles Pelosi could confer: Wasserman Schultz, in her freshman term, had passed a law – itself extraordinary — establishing Jewish American Heritage Month.

During her spectacular rise, Wasserman Schultz has made her Jewish identity abundantly clear. A typical refrain for her was that she considered her policies not merely as a lawmaker but as a “Jewish mother.” She took time out to attend Jewish events, appearing in 2011 at a roast for Ira Forman, who had retired as the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council – where she had one of her first political jobs in the early 1990s as a gofer.

At the 2012 convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, she spent an inordinate amount of time working with Jewish Democrats to push back against the inroads that Republicans were making among Florida Jews. The efforts paid off: Those gains showing up in internal polls were rolled back by November, helping President Barack Obama win the key state.

The organized Jewish community sometimes appreciated her attentions and sometimes was wary of them. National Jewish leaders learned to expect her scorching dressing-downs if she did not deem them sufficiently responsive to perceived Republican sins against the Jews.

Still, for Democrats, and Jewish Democrats particularly, she could do little wrong. Wasserman Schultz kept hidden her battle with breast cancer, but starting in 2009, spoke about it with eloquence and force. She said the health plan she had as a member of Congress was critical to her care – and one she wanted to extend to all Americans through Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.

In 2011, when her close friend Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Jewish Democrat from Arizona, was shot, she joined with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in maintaining a bedside vigil. In their media appearances, Wasserman Schultz and Gillibrand became the best friends everyone wanted during that drama – fierce, loving and protective.

Soon thereafter, Wasserman Schultz achieved a new pinnacle, chairing the DNC. She brought to the job her prodigious fundraising skills and what had been a talent for balancing effective attacks against Republicans with a sympathetic (to her allies, anyway) presence.

Turns out, maintaining that balance was harder than it seemed. Republicans pounced and Democrats and feminists winced in 2014 when she likened Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to a wife beater while criticizing his policies. She later said she regretted the analogy.

Her fundraising lagged. This election cycle, the DNC has raised just short of $130 million to the Republican National Committee’s $180 million, according to Open Secrets.

Democrats have been all too eager over recent years to leak details of her alleged excesses, which included demanding that the party pay for her wardrobe for special occasions and naming unskilled loyalists to inside jobs (she denied the allegations).

These pressures mounted as differences between Obama and the pro-Israel community sharpened, especially during the debate over the Iran nuclear deal. She became one of the most-watched Democrats as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Obama’s surrogates took opposite sides over a Republican bid to kill the deal. When Wasserman Schultz finally announced in favor of the deal, appearing on CNN just days before the vote, she again said she was doing so “as a Jewish mother” and wept.

The deal out of the way, Wasserman Schultz set about contending with an election season in which the conventional wisdom was that Clinton would be the inevitable nominee.

Sanders proved a more formidable candidate than anyone – Sanders included – had anticipated, and there soon arose tensions. The senator accused Wasserman Schultz of tilting the scales against him with a debate schedule he said favored Clinton, as well as a reluctance to deliver the assistance that parties must evenly distribute to all candidates.

Wasserman Schultz vigorously denied the accusations – until last week’s dump by WikiLeaks of emails believed to have been hacked by Russians. There was no smoking gun showing an actual attempt to sabotage Sanders, but there were proposals to do so – the most damaging by Brad Marshall, the campaign’s finance boss, who suggested depicting Sanders as an atheist alienated from his Jewish heritage. (Sanders says he believes in God, and he celebrates his Jewish background.)

Wasserman Schultz is down but not yet out of the ’16 campaign. Negotiating her exit from the DNC, she secured a senior surrogate spot on the Clinton campaign, and she insisted in sticking out the week. She also said she wanted to speak at the convention, despite the Clinton campaign seeming none too enthusiastic about the prospect, before opting to stay away from the stage just two hours before she was set to open the gathering.

“I have decided that in the interest of making sure that we can start the Democratic convention on a high note that I am not going to gavel in the convention,” Wasserman Schultz told her hometown newspaper, the Broward County edition of the Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Wasserman Schultz faces a Sanders backer, Tim Canova, a law professor, in her district in the primary next month. Canova, spurred by Sanders’ enthusiastic endorsement, has raised more money.

Ron Klein has known Wasserman Schultz since they were both elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1992, when Wasserman Schultz was 26. He is now consulting with Democrats, and said he expected her to triumph, in part because she remains a hyperactive campaigner who is still beloved in her district.

“First thing’s first,” he told JTA. “She has to fight hard and win this next election.”

And don’t count out the return of Wasserman Schultz to a leadership role, Klein said.

“Maybe she will go forward and try to run within the House leadership down the road,” he said.

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