Obama's other first lady
Jewish, liberal and Floridian, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz has all the traits needed to drum up support for the president ahead of the 2012 elections. His poll numbers may be sagging, but the new Democratic leader isn't worried.
U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz loves to say that even if she fails: "I am not ever going to lose because I got outworked." Since the energetic, 45-year-old Representative from Florida took on the post of Democratic National Committee chair in May, she's visited 20 states, raising money and trying to energize activists ahead of the 2012 elections.
An interview with her must be squeezed between meetings, on the way to her light-pink office at DNC headquarters in Washington from her dark-red Congressional office (with her collection of Mickey Mouse paraphernalia - a nod to her home state's Disney World, divided between the two ); during her lunch break, answering the questions holding on her lap a salad taken from a green insulated lunch box; and in the car, on her way to a Jewish holiday reception at Vice President Joseph Biden's residence - from which she rushes back to the Capitol to vote, and then goes on to give a speech in the evening at a DNC event in Arlington, Virginia.
"Actually it's a pretty leisurely day," she smiles. Usually her schedule is much worse, especially since she considers herself to be primarily a mother of three children, whose drawings have pride of place in both her Washington offices.
"I don't have free time at all, it's a lot of juggling. I have to be organized. I am in Washington during the week. In the recess week I split my time between my district and traveling for the DNC. Portions of the weekends I am at home with my family. It's a full schedule, but it seems I am doing all the jobs well. My family is doing well, my kids are doing well in school, they are happy, we are even able to plan a holiday together."
For her current post, Wasserman Schultz had to give up some of her Congressional responsibilities, although she says DNC chairmanship wasn't her goal.
"There were lots of ways to be helpful to the president ahead of the 2012 elections. I am a woman and I am from Florida," she says, referring to her native swing state. "I am Jewish and I am young, and a progressive liberal democrat. I am a good fund-raiser and I am not bad at messaging, some people feel. And then I was asked by the president to take this responsibility. It's incredibly flattering any time the president asks you to do anything, but for me to have the president ask to have his back and help him to cross the finish line, so that our children's future can be better - it was not a difficult decision. I am someone who wants to help stir the results that I'd like to see. I am a Jewish woman, we don't sit on the sidelines. So I talked with my husband about it - my first goal was that I can still represent effectively my constituents well, and not to harm my children. I said yes to the president because I believed it was so important."
Wasserman Schultz has her work cut out for her. Slightly more than half of Americans think U.S. President Barack Obama will be a one-term president, and only 58 percent of Democrats think he will be reelected.
But she dismisses the polling numbers.
"We are 13 months before the elections, so we do not focus on polls," she says. "We are focused on passing the American Jobs Act, and turning the economy around and helping middle class and working families. As DNC chair, I am focused on making people understand what we've accomplished, where we were before and where we are now economically. So we are focused on showing people that we were bleeding, losing 750,000 jobs before President Obama was inaugurated. We have a long way to go, but we are not losing jobs now, we are adding jobs."
Wasserman Schultz thinks Republican candidates' flirting with the Tea Party movement makes the voters' choice even easier.
"I think most of their candidates are trying to 'out right-wing' each other," she says. "They are all embracing the Tea Party, so it doesn't really matter to me which one ultimately is the nominee, because they all 'sign up' for the same terrible policies Americans don't agree with."
Wasserman Schultz calls the Tea Party "a group of very extreme right-wing Republicans that are totally out of touch with what average middle class Americans are interested in. They seem to hate everything - they hate public education, they hate government, they don't seem to have any interest in ensuring everybody's quality of life. They support drastic, horrendous cuts that will hurt people. They don't care about the safety net we have in the United States, social security to protect seniors, or Medicare. I don't think much of them."
Wasserman Schultz says that the Democrats shouldn't think about nominating Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for president, because of Obama's low polling numbers, though she did personally support Clinton before she lost the primaries.
"Hillary Clinton is very happy and doing an unbelievable job as secretary of state, and I think Barack Obama is doing great job as president. The polls do not mean anything now - this election is going to be very stark and dramatic in contrast between President Obama and the direction he's taken the country - turning the economy around, taking us from bleeding hundreds-of-thousands of jobs, to now adding private sector jobs for 18 straight months and starting to move in the right direction - and the Republicans who want to take us back to where we were before to the policy in financial services industry that brought us to the disaster we found ourselves in - to let the fox guard the henhouse? They support policies that focus only on the wealthiest and the most fortunate Americans. That's the contrast voters will have."
Obama told ABC TV last week that he sees himself as an "underdog" in this race. Do you feel any excitement from the Democratic base?
"There is a bit of a myth that the media has perpetuated about so-called 'lack of enthusiasm.' We had 560,000 donors in the second quarter, 250,000 of them were brand new to the campaign. And the average contribution was $98. You had a base and new people coming aboard. I've met with hundreds and hundreds of Obama-for-America activists, who engaged and did phone calls and one-on-one meetings. We have to continue to energize the base, but the major challenge for us is the economy, this is going to be the major issue of the elections, and we need to continue working on creating jobs to turn things around."
Was there any positive Republican reaction to the president's jobs bill?
"On the contrary: [Republican Congressman and Majority Leader] Eric Cantor said it was 'dead,' that the House wouldn't even allow a vote on it. What is so shocking - eight Republican candidates and the leadership in the Congress - care about only one job: Barack Obama's. Democrats care about American jobs. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said that his No. 1 priority was defeating Barack Obama. If that's his No. 1 priority, why would he be interested in helping the president to turn the economy around? I believe they have an interest in leaving the economy stagnant, so that Barack Obama doesn't get any credit for improving things, and their candidate will win. That's disgusting."
No 'Jewish problem'
Of Cantor and Wasserman Schultz, Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman says: "It's interesting that we are finding two young political leaders in both parties that scored significant achievements, that are positively, actively and proudly Jewish - that's something new."
Wasserman Schultz seems to share these sentiments, noting that she has "a very nice relationship with Eric, we get along well and we share very often a podium at the Jewish organizations as a Republican and Democratic speaker. For the most part we have very different views on how to improve the economy and in what direction the country should go. But there is something we both share - even if we don't agree, it's still for me as a Jew a source of pride - that the majority leader of the House of Representatives is Jewish.
When New York's District 9, Anthony Weiner's old seat in a heavily Jewish area of Queens, went to a Republican this summer for the first time since 1921, pundits pointed to this as a sign of growing disenchantment among the Jewish community with Obama.
But Wasserman Schultz does not believe Obama has a "Jewish problem."
"I don't think he has a Jewish problem. I know there is speculation he does," she says. "President Obama still has the overwhelming support of the Jewish community, the [democratic party is the] natural political home for Jewish voters, because besides our support for Israel and the president's support for Israel, on every major issue for the Jewish community, the Republicans are wrong on these issues. Making sure we have a quality education system, standing up for people who have no voice, fighting for the hungry, for civil rights and civil liberties - the Republicans oppose those things or do harm to them."
Wasserman Schultz notes that Obama's commitment to Israel and his speech at the United Nations last month calling for a two-state solution through negotiations should also help cement Jewish support for him.
"We had more military cooperation than ever before - the Iron Dome, the bunker-buster bombs that President [George W.] Bush had refused and President Obama authorized," she says. "The veto at the United Nations on the settlements resolution; the language of resolution on the [2010 Turkish] flotilla to Gaza would be much worse if President Obama hadn't intervened; there was the rescue of the Israeli Embassy employees in Cairo. There is a solid and strong record of support that this president has for Israel - and there is an attempt by Republicans to distort it and lie. That does damage to Israel. If there is a perception there is any daylight between the parties on support for Israel - that creates an opening and opportunity for Israel's enemies. Israel should never be a partisan issue. Unfortunately, you have some Republicans who care more about electing Republicans than protecting Israel. The Jewish community is an important and strong part of the Democratic voting base, so we have an outreach effort with every community in the campaign, and the White House has consistently done an outreach effort with Jewish community leaders."
The congresswoman is cautious when commenting on young American Jews' disengagement with Israel.
"In my district, there is overwhelming support for Israel and it's cross-generational," she stresses. "There has been a problem on college campuses in America. But they are not primarily Jewish kids."
Asked if she sees any gaps between Congress and the Obama administration's position on Israel, she replies with a decisive "No" and says Obama's views are consistent with his predecessors'.
"President Obama's position is not any different from any other administration, settlement policy hasn't changed in the United States from when President Clinton or Bush was in office," she explains. "The policy is not different about so-called settlements. If you go to them it would be difficult to look at any of these suburbs and call them settlements because it's a very dramatic difference in perception of what people think settlements look like, versus what these neighborhoods really look like."
Likewise, she sees the Arab Spring through blue-and-white tinted goggles.
"Democracy is a positive thing," she says. "But I have angst over evolution of these democracies and [want to] make sure we are watchful and focused that the countries like Egypt maintain positive relations with Israel, so that transitions to democracies don't take turns for the worse for Israel."
Wasserman Schultz adds that she was against the congressional decision to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority in response to their statehood bid: "From what I understand, Israel too is opposed to blocking aid to the Palestinian Authority, because if they do not receive security funding, that's a real problem for Israel. We can't cut our nose to spite our face. We can't have U.S. policy simply be political chest-beating - we have to be constructive, our role has to be a catalyst in the peace process, in bringing parties together. And we have to keep trying, the president believes we should keep trying; it's been one of his top priorities. He met with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu more than with any other world leader, invested resources and hours in trying to find a way to jump-start the peace process - it's something he's very committed to. We need to keep looking for opportunities. And now you have a Quartet that made a proposal that Netanyahu had embraced, we need the Palestinian Authority to embrace it. The Palestinians need to recognize that negotiations are a two-way street and there has to be give on both sides."
Animals and mud-slinging
Strange as it might sound looking back on her career today, politics wasn't an obvious choice for Wasserman Schultz. For her entire childhood she wanted to be a veterinarian. She worked at an animal hospital for four years in high school and was enrolled in local agricultural and technical college. Today, her love for animals is reserved for her family's four dogs and cat.
"My parents weren't involved in politics, but around our dinner table the notion of tikkun olam [repairing the world] was always an important theme of conversation, and the importance of giving back, because we were fortunate, and I was involved in the community," she says.
"I was kind of hit by the lightning bolt when I was in the student government in college. I had two choices: Most of my friends were deciding they want to make as much money as they could, it was really the 'me' generation in the '80s, and I didn't think it would make me happy. I was passionate about helping people. So I decided to make public service a career, got involved in the local campaigns and did a lot of internships, and eventually in graduate school I was hired as a legislative aide by my predecessor in the state House of Representatives, Peter Deutsch, who immigrated to Israel after he finished his term in Congress. When he ran for Congress in 1992, he encouraged me to run for his seat in the Florida House of Representatives."
Wasserman Schultz was 25 when she ran, and became the youngest woman elected to the Florida legislature. She's been in politics nearly 20 years now, and admits to developing a thick skin because of it. For example, in July, during the debt ceiling debate, she got involved in a mud-throwing fight against fellow Floridian Congressman Allen West, a Republican. She criticized him on the House floor, and he sent her an email copied to the Republican leadership that quickly became public, where he called her "the most vile, unprofessional and despicable member of the U.S. House of Representatives."
"West's words speak more about him than they speak about me," she says. "He continues his comments and I just continue to do my job, work hard and represent my constituents. Politics can be a pretty aggressive arena."
Wasserman Schultz proved her toughness another time, when in the middle of presidential race in 2007, she was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent seven operations, without even telling her colleagues and children, until she fully recovered.
"When you are never sick a day in your life, and then one day you find a lump in your breast and in a couple of weeks you find out you have a breast cancer - it makes you realize how finite everything is," she recalls. "It made me gravely concerned at the time about how many more birthdays I'll share with my kids, anniversaries with my husband, and bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs. I don't want to say it made me live every day to the fullest, but it definitely gave me an appreciation for where my priorities should be, although I already prioritized my family first."
She says she kept the illness a secret to protect her kids from the trauma: "I didn't want to make my breast cancer public until I was given a clean bill of health, because my children were very young at the time and cancer is a very scary thing - we had deaths from cancer in our family, and to them cancer was associated with death," she explains. "And I knew I am going to be okay, so I didn't want to share it with them until I was all right. I had seven major surgeries that year, and I had them up here [in Washington], not in Florida. My kids knew there was something wrong, that I had surgery, but they didn't know what it was for.
"Another thing is that I didn't want it to define me - I knew that if I shared it, I would be, 'Debbie Wasserman Schultz who is currently battling breast cancer' in every news item. What happens when you have cancer is you have very little control, so I didn't want it to define me. Especially during the presidential campaign, well-meaning people will say: 'We can't ask Debbie to do that because she has breast cancer.' I wanted to control what I was capable of doing."
Big in temple
Wasserman Schultz isn't worried by polls that show extremely low approval ratings for Congress, as low as 14 percent, because she thinks even if her colleagues are slacking, her own constituents still have faith in her.
"It's gratifying for me as an individual lawmaker, because I know that even if people don't think much of the institution, I feel that my constituents seem to like the job that I am doing, they reelected me with pretty significant margins, I get really good feedback at home. I spoke at one of my synagogues at Rosh Hashanah - people don't usually clap in synagogues - and amazingly, when the temple president introduced me, people burst out in applause. That's my own private 'field test' of my popularity. And it's especially gratifying when you can help your constituents, cutting all the red tape the government presents that makes peoples' life tough - helping with an immigration case, or getting someone health insurance, or getting someone's medals from the military that they never got."
Between her other engagements on this particular day, Wasserman-Schultz also met with staffers for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman recovering after being shot in the head nine month ago during a meeting with constituents in Tucson. They discussed the possibilities of going forward with legislation to name a room in the Capitol after Gabe Zimmerman, Giffords' director of community outreach, the first Congressional staffer to be shot in the line of duty .
They have 330 co-sponsors, but are not sure the Republicans will be responsive enough. Talking about Giffords, another young strong Jewish Congresswoman and a close friend, Wasserman-Schultz's eyes fill with tears. She says that it's easier to talk to her friend these days in person than by phone, and that Giffords doesn't know yet if she'll decide to run for reelection.
"She is still focused on the recovery. And she gets better each time I see her," Wasserman-Schultz says.
Debbie Wasserman-Schultz was sworn into Congress in 2005 on a Hebrew Bible borrowed from one of her Jewish colleagues, [New York Democrat] Rep. Gary Ackerman, and since then initiatives related to the Jewish community and Israel have been one of Wasserman-Schultz's trademarks.
Jewish leaders have much to say in her praise.
"She is a vibrant, dynamic leader and very much a member of Jewish community," says William Daroff, the director of the Washington office of The Jewish Federations of North America. "She lives her life as a mother, a legislator and a mensch who tries to do good for the Jewish community. She is clearly partisan, she is aggressive, but that's what committed individuals with convictions do. She has an amazing future for decades to come in political world, which was clearly recognized by the president, who tapped her for leadership role at such young age, and that's what then Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi did when Debbie was a new member of Congress."
Aside from her Capitol receptions in honor of Jewish holidays, she has introduced a bill that would bolster agencies that work to provide services to Holocaust survivors in the United States to add them to the priority list for social services. She pushed for bill fighting discrimination by insurance companies who denied life insurance for travelers going to countries like Israel, based on perception of the high risk, claiming that Israel's intentional death rate is 11 per 100,000 - compared to the U.S. rate of 17 per 100,000. The bill got stuck in the Senate, though.
But the resolution designating May as Jewish American Heritage month went through and was supported by President George W. Bush.
"Most people in America either had not met a Jewish person, or did not interact with Jewish person almost ever in their lives," she says. "There isn't a lot of awareness of American Jews' [impact] on American history, on the quality of our lives and successes America had through the years. So Jewish American Heritage month was important so we could raise awareness of this impact. We've been able to get programming all over the country that highlights Jewish accomplishment, raising awareness that Judaism is a religion and a culture. The more understanding there is, the more tolerance there will be."
Your husband said in one interview you'd probably love one day to become president, adding that you are a woman, Jewish and liberal, and therefore it is not going to happen anytime soon.
"If he said that he did not know what he was saying. I don't have any ambition to be president. I love representing my constituents from the 20th district in Florida in the U.S. House and want to continue to do that. I love being a legislator. I am focused on that. I am trying to change their lives through the way I can change the law, and use my voice to be their advocate, that's what I like to do."
Even if she won't occupy the Oval Office, Wasserman-Schultz thinks it's only a matter of time until a mezuzah is affixed on the White House door: "I don't know when, but I think America has already demonstrated in electing Barack Obama that anything is possible."