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Election to House Caps Fast Ascent for Florida Woman Seen As Rising Star

November 9, 2004
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When Debbie Wasserman Schultz first walked into the Florida House of Representatives as a legislator, she was 26 and most of her colleagues were old enough to be her parents and grandparents. In January, when she walks into the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, she likely will be in the same boat. But she’s excited about it.

“You just have to go into the room knowing you were elected the same way they were,” Wasserman Schultz, 38, told JTA. “It’s important to prove yourself, that you’re an equal.”

Two days after being elected to Congress, Wasserman Schultz was sitting in an Orlando hotel room, ready to go to Walt Disney World with her young children, a well-earned vacation after a long year of campaigning.

Amid the screaming of twin four-year-olds, the congresswoman-elect spoke of her rise in 12 years from a young legislative aide in the Florida House of Representatives to a seat in Congress.

It began with a call from her mentor, Peter Deutsch, then Wasserman Schultz’ boss, who was giving up his state house seat to run for Congress.

“It was really amazing,” she said. “He called me at home one day in the middle of the legislative session and he said, ‘You could run in my race, your house is in my district.’ “

The thought may not have crossed her mind before, since she had lived in the district for only three years. But people already had seen her political spark.

“Debbie spoke at a very early age,” Larry Wasserman said of his oldest child. “She was always out there and never was the shy, retiring type.”

Growing up in Long Island, the future lawmaker ran for student council every year, and always lost. She enrolled in the University of Florida as a veterinary medicine major, but the political bug soon hit her and she got involved in student politics.

“She has a gift for politics,” said Deutsch, whose seat Wasserman Schultz will fill in Washington. Deutsch left the House earlier this year to run for Senate, but lost in the Democratic primary.

“She has an understanding of the political dynamics but also has a passion for being a really strong advocate and shaping policy,” he said.

Wasserman Schultz changed her major to political science and graduated in 1988. She started working for Deutsch, eventually becoming his chief of staff, while commuting to Gainesville to get her masters degree in political campaigning.

After Deutsch suggested that Wasserman Schultz follow in his footsteps in 1992, the newlywed worked with her husband to figure out if they could afford a run for the state house. She then started an aggressive campaign, going door to door through southern Florida’s retirement condominium communities.

“I tried to make up in shoe leather what I didn’t have in money,” she said.

She made an impression on the voters.

“It helped, frankly, that the district she won in has a large Jewish population,” Larry Wasserman said. “A lot of the elderly Jewish people who live in her district treat her like she’s their granddaughter.”

Wasserman Schultz won 53 percent of the vote in a six-way Democratic primary that year, avoiding a runoff, and became the youngest woman to sit in the House. She served for eight years, before leaving office due to term limits, and joined the State Senate in 2000.

This year, Wasserman Schultz’s campaign focused on homeland security, health care, funding federal education programs and shrinking the nation’s deficit. She won 70 percent of the vote to defeat Margaret Hostetter.

Her father said Wasserman Schultz has not been particularly active in the Jewish community, but has forged ties with Jewish groups as a lawmaker. She helped to form the National Jewish Democratic Council and served on the regional board of the American Jewish Congress.

She also forged ties with other Jewish lawmakers, such as Pennsylvania State Sen. Allyson Schwartz (D.), who will join Wasserman Schultz as a new congresswoman next year. The two talked by phone last week to congratulate each other and share advice on the transition to Congress.

Wasserman Schultz is seen as a rising star among Democrats. Though she didn’t face a primary opponent and was seen as a shoo-in to be elected, prominent Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) campaigned on her behalf, and she raised more than $1.3 million.

Those she leaves behind in Florida say she has shown an ability to compromise with Republicans, while fighting hard for her issues.

But Wasserman Schultz also is seen as a liberal coming to Washington at a time that it is becoming more conducive to conservatives. Wasserman Schultz is an adamant supporter of gay and abortion rights, and sponsored bills in the Florida legislature calling for equal gender representation on state boards and price parity for men’s and women’s clothing at dry cleaners.

She expects her new job to be hard, specifically the commute between Florida and Washington and leaving her three children behind with her husband.

But she has become accustomed to balancing her job and career. After all, this is a woman who used a crayon to jot down notes during one congressional campaign debate — but then, crayons are a usually present in the purse of a mother of three small children.

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