WASHINGTON – Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s first day as a sophomore in the US House of Representatives, on January 8, 2007, was marked by a number of extraordinary achievements for a woman barely out of her first term.
Named to the Democratic caucus leadership. Named to the allpowerful Appropriations Committee.
Named as a major fundraiser – $17 million – for the party’s breakthrough 2006 election.
Named by a tabloid as one of the 50 most beautiful people on Capitol Hill.
Yet dominating her victory party were blow-ups of headlines from Jewish
newspapers: Wasserman Schultz had led the passage of the act
establishing May as the annual Jewish American Heritage Month.
President Barack Obama this month named Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida),
44, to the most powerful party position, chairwoman of the Democratic
National Committee. Even before she has formally assumed the job, the
question of her Jewish identity has stirred speculation.
Jewish Democrats say Obama’s choice of a successor to former Virginia
Gov. Tim Kaine in the top party fund-raising spot is a signal of Obama’s
commitment to a loyal constituency: the Jews.
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“I guarantee you that her being a woman played a role in the choice, I
guarantee you that her being from Florida played a role,” said David
Harris, the president of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “But I
also guarantee you that her being Jewish played a role.”
The question remains open of what role, if any, Wasserman Schultz’s
Judaism will play as she leads the Democratic Party into the 2012
elections, when it hopes to reelect Obama, maintain the majority in the
Senate and erode the Republican majority in the House. Wasserman Schultz
declined to be interviewed for this story.
“She is so, so excited to be Jewish,” said Shelley Rood, who worked as a
legislative assistant in Wasserman Schultz’s office and is now a senior
legislative associate at the Jewish Federations of North America. “She
really enjoys working with Jewish organizations because she believes
their priorities for America are right-on.”
Wasserman Schultz arrived at politics through Jewish activism, which has
been a centerpiece of her career. The same year, Wasserman Schultz was
running for her first legislative position, the Florida House in 1992,
she joined the National Jewish Democratic Council as a staffer leading
its Florida operation.
“It was a regional office where you had one person on her own,” Steve
Gutow, then the NJDC director, said of Wasserman Schultz, who was just
25 at the time. “But all the things we wanted to happen, happened. She
had a strong sense of self; she had a mind of her own.”
That single-mindedness and willingness to work with what she had
shepherded her through stints in both Florida houses, and then for
Congress after her old boss, Peter Deutsch, quit his Fort
Lauderdale-area district for an unsuccessful US Senate run in 2004.
She won handily and was immediately picked by Rep.
Nancy Pelosi (D-California), then the minority leader in the House, as a
leader. Pelosi asked Wasserman Schultz to push potential first-timers
past the finish line in 2006.
That’s the year Wasserman Schultz formed friendships with Kirsten
Gillibrand, who won a seat in upstate New York, and with Gabrielle
Giffords, who won an Arizona seat (Gillibrand is now a US senator).
Wasserman Schultz’s tireless work with both women was critical to
winning both races in districts that might easily have swung Republican.
That helped Democrats sweep the House that year and won Wasserman
Schultz the chief deputy whip job in her second term, and the plum spot
on the Appropriations Committee.
It also led to close friendships and regular lunches for the three relatively young female lawmakers.
When an assailant shot Giffords in the head in January, Wasserman
Schultz and Gillibrand were among the first to fly to her bedside, and
they were there when she pronounced her first words since the shooting: a
request for toast.
Giffords’ chief of staff, Pia Carusone, says Wasserman Schultz has been
“invaluable” in supporting the staff. Wasserman Schulz and Giffords
shared many interests, Carusone said, but exploring their shared Judaism
“There are not that many women in office, and not so many Jewish women, so it has been a nice friendship,” Carusone told JTA.
Wasserman Schultz is seen as a team player. She was a strident leader in
the 2008 primary campaign for Hillary Clinton, and easily shifted to
Team Obama when Clinton withdrew – a shift Obama has now repaid.
Republicans deride her as a partisan.
Hours after the announcement that she’d be the next party chairwoman,
the Republican Jewish Coalition issued a statement citing her connection
with J Street, a liberal group that calls itself pro-Israel, pro-peace
but which the RJC describes as marginal and anti-Israel, to question her
“In blindly conferring legitimacy on fringe groups like J Street, she
has raised serious questions about her own credibility and judgment,”
RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks said.
Wasserman Schultz has praised J Street a handful of times, and she had addressed the organization at least once.
Capitol Hill insiders dismissed the flap as RJC politicking – Brooks’
statement resulted in immediate praise for Wasserman Schultz from the
American Israel Public Affairs Committee and from the Jewish Federations
of North America. Neither organization is prone to praise promotions to
hyperpolitical jobs, so the mere issuance of the statements was a clear
establishment message to the RJC to pipe down.
As for Wasserman Schultz, she’s not afraid to take hard shots. Last
October, appearing on Fox News Sunday with Rep. Eric Cantor (RVirginia),
then the minority whip and the only Republican Jewish lawmaker in
Congress, she chided him for not repudiating a Republican candidate in
Ohio who had dressed up in Nazi regalia for SS reenactments.
Cantor repudiated the candidate, and then Wasserman Schultz suggested he was succumbing to her on-air pressure.
“You know good and well that I don’t support anything like that,” an annoyed Cantor said.
Off the record, Jewish leaders say Wasserman Schultz will ratchet up the
pressure on the Jewish establishment to back Democratic initiatives.
Eric Golub, a Jewish blogger for the conservative Washington Times,
calls her the Democrats’ “Jew shrew” because of her partisanship.
Rood, her former staffer, ridicules such slurs.
“She enjoys working with the other side,” she said. “But she’s in the leadership, so of course she’s going to be partisan.”
Carusone, Rood and others also cited Wasserman Schultz as an example of a
lawmaker able to balance a career with a young family. Wasserman
Schultz often can be seen walking around Capitol Hill, one of her three
young children by her side, chatting animatedly.
She has said many times that she would not be able to pull it off without her husband.
Wasserman Schultz’s frankness about the difficulties of juggling
parenthood and a career made her a natural party spokesman for women in
the 2008 and 2010 campaigns, and she often refers to her children in
explaining her support for reforming health care and attacking poverty.
“She’s a mother of young children, so she gets the balancing,” said
Carol Brick Turin, the director of the Miami-area Jewish Community
That openness made it all the more shocking when she revealed in March
2009 that she had battled, and defeated, breast cancer. Associates say
that’s typical of a woman who has managed a highly public career while
maintaining an intense privacy around her family.
Still, she remains loyal and available to friends from the earliest
years of her career. When she attended a Chabad event recently, she
picked out and warmly greeted Rabbi Aron Lieberman, a Fort Lauderdale
As a 20-year-old staffer in Deutsch’s office, it had been her job to
pick up Lieberman from the airport for the monthly classes Deutsch had
with the rabbi.
The fact that she remembered Lieberman, never mind deferred to him, took
aback the assembled rabbis, said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the director of
American Friends of Lubavitch.
“She’s energetic, dynamic, aggressive and well respected even by those
who might not agree with her on the policy level,” he said.
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