Playing Partisan From Her Hill Perch
Even when chatting about office decorations, Debbie Wasserman Schultz is scoring political points.
There are not yet books on the shelves inside this corner office deep within the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Her new desk, like the walls, is virtually bare. Less than 48 hours after becoming the DNC chairwoman, a handful of framed family pictures and some fresh flowers are the only evidence her new office is even occupied.
“We’re in the process of moving in now,” the Congresswoman says. “We have to make this look less like a man’s office, because that’s pretty much what it’s always been. It’s really ugly. We’re going to pretty it up a little bit.”
But don’t let the tulips and irises fool you.
This Florida Democrat may be a 44-year-old mother of three young children, but she will also serve as President Barack Obama’s leading attack dog for the next 18 months.
She has an uncanny knack for being both disarming and aggressive in the same conversation. She is a breast cancer survivor and longtime politician who knows that her ability to connect with women is one of her greatest political assets in the fight to help re-elect Obama.
Just don’t question her intention to play an active role, despite the constant juggling act that already defines her life.
“Anyone that knows me knows that I wouldn’t take a job — I don’t collect titles. I work my ass off,” she told Roll Call in an interview. “I had a specific conversation with the people around the president that I did not want this job if they were just plunking me at the top of the organization as a figurehead. There was a specific discussion that they were bringing me in because they wanted me at the table, because they wanted me to be able to help them make strategic decisions, important strategic decisions, and be able to use the talents, for lack of a better term, that I have in fundraising, in messaging, in grass-roots outreach.”
Her resolve is clear, but the last active Member of Congress to hold the DNC chairmanship, then-Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), was little more than a figurehead during his term between 1995 and 1996. A co-chairman was appointed at that time to help lead the operation.
In the years since, governors and strategists have led the party. Wasserman Schultz said it’s a good time to shift away from a top-down leadership structure.
“The difference between Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Tim Kaine, and for that matter Howard Dean and Terry McAuliffe before him, I just had a very different style as a legislator than the previous three chairs who were executives,” she said. “It’s the right time for a style like mine. … We need to get everybody on board. We need to get everybody fired up. We need to make sure that everybody feels important.”
Wasserman Schultz is already used to being on the front lines of the bitter partisan battle that dominates Washington culture most days. She has become a near-constant presence on cable television news and earned the reputation of a feared debater, having been dubbed “The Pistol” by former Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.).
In a wide-ranging interview Friday morning, she vacillated between someone who called for mutual respect in politics and someone who suggested Republicans want to put illegal immigrants on rafts and the elderly out on the streets.
“It’s important not to see our opponents as the enemy. They’re people we disagree with much of the time, but not all of the time,” she said. “And finding common ground is really important. I really always try to look for the way I can reach across the aisle and find agreement.”
But Wasserman Schultz also defended her recent statement that the House Republican plan to reshape Medicare is a “death trap” for seniors.
“While some might think that word choices are too strong at times, people have a lot going on in their lives, they hear a lot of people saying a lot of things on the TV news and in the newspapers they read. Sometimes when you have an outrageous proposal, it’s important to call it like it is so that you can call people’s attention to it.”
She described House Republicans’ effort to cut funding from Planned Parenthood and restrict taxpayer funding for abortion as beyond outrageous.
“I don’t think they have much respect for women. I don’t think they care about women’s priorities,” she said, calling it “a flagrant assault on women.”
Wasserman Schultz suddenly finds herself as the most prominent woman in Democratic politics, the new face of the party in a way that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) is not. Wasserman Schultz may be an aggressive politician, but she is also someone who spends part of each week making lunches and watching youth sports back in Florida.
A recent New York Times article included a photo of the Congresswoman in her kitchen, clad in pink pajamas, pushing to get her children off to school.
Wasserman Schultz is a quarter-century younger than Pelosi and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom Wasserman Schultz supported for president during the long 2008 primary search.
Her role at the DNC is a consolation prize of sorts. She wanted to lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee but was passed over by Pelosi in favor of Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.)
Wasserman Schultz was a fundraising force for House Democrats. She planned to raise $4 million for the committee this cycle, a target that exceeded those of all but three other Caucus members. And she confirmed Friday that she is in the process of moving a personal fundraising staffer previously assigned to the DCCC to the DNC.
“I certainly wouldn’t overstate my importance,” she said. “We’ve got a significant leadership team at the DCCC, and they’re going to do just fine.”
While she described her top political priority as Obama’s re-election, Wasserman Schultz said the goal would have a residually positive effect for House Democrats, whom she bullishly said “have a really good chance” at reclaiming the 25 seats necessary to win back the majority.
“The re-election of President Obama will help ensure that we take the House back because obviously coattails point down, and we’re going to make sure he has the longest coattails in history after we’re done with this election,” she said.
Wasserman Schultz has much to do to help the president win a second term, although she declined to discuss any new strategies she would institute under her watch.
Looking to her own political future, Wasserman Schultz laughed when asked whether she might want to be president someday.
“I am concentrating on three things: Being Rebecca, Jake and Shelby’s mom. Re-electing President Obama. Getting Debbie Wasserman Schultz re-elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and being the best Representative that I can be,” she said. “There’s always been a lot of talk about my rise, rising star. I think all of that is baloney.”
She continued: “The best praise that anybody could heap on me is that I’m a hard worker, and if I’m rewarded for that hard work, it’s just going to make me more effective for constituents.”
But on this day, the focus wasn’t totally on her own political future or her role at the DNC.
Around midday, she was set to fly to Houston to visit her close friend, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who is still recovering from a violent attack earlier in the year. While in the Southwest, Wasserman Schultz planned to attend at least two fundraisers, an early example of how her life as a multitasking mother, friend and legislator just got busier as the DNC chairwoman.
It wasn’t even 9 a.m. when she burst out the front door and toward a waiting car. She had already done a national television interview before sitting down with Roll Call. But she had a little more work to do before flying.
“I still haven’t packed,” she said.