WASHINGTON (JTA) — Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s first day as a sophomore in the U.S. House of Representatives, on Jan. 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 all-powerful 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 Jewish American Heritage Month.
President Obama last week named Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), 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 fundraising spot is a signal of Obama’s commitment to a loyal constituency: the Jews.
“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 re-elect 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 U.S. Senate run in 2004.
She won handily and was immediately picked by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), 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 U.S. 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 was critical.
“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 Rodham 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 chair, 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 bona fides.
“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 (R-Va.), 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 re-enactments.
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 Relations Council.
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 Chabad director. 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.