Just who is Debbie Wasserman Schultz? The frizzy-haired Floridian was President Barack Obama’s surprise choice to head the Democratic National Committee following the departure of former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who is now running for a U.S. Senate seat in Virginia.
Born in Queens, New York, Wasserman Schultz, a former legislative aide, was, at one time, the youngest female legislator in Florida history. A prolific fundraiser — she reportedly raised more than $17 million for her congressional colleagues in 2006 — she nonetheless seems an odd choice to lead the national party. She is not terribly well-known, is not considered an expert on the less-than-gentle art of politics, and, as she has shown in recent days, is somewhat gaffe prone.
Wasserman Schultz is, as former Republican National Committee communications director Doug Heye acknowledges, “an effective messenger.”
“Since coming to Congress, she’s been one of the Democrats’ most aggressive, effective messengers,” Heye says. In her new role, he adds, “The aggressiveness is still there, but, so far, she has not been as effective as one might expect.”
But is that enough? Some say it is, pointing to the Democrats’ unexpected victory in a recent special election in a heavily Republican congressional district in upstate New York once represented by conservative icon Jack Kemp.
Those who were on the ground in the race suggest the eventual victory had more to do with the GOP fielding a weak candidate, state Assemblyman Jane Corwin, than with any kind of meaningful, cohesive strategy. Messaging played a role, but only in the sense that Corwin’s failure to respond in a timely way to attacks made by her Democratic opponent, newly elected U.S. Rep. Kathy Hochul, allowed her to be defined in a way the made any response, when it finally came, too little, too late.
Nevertheless, Wasserman Schultz has been thrust into a position of national leadership in a way that doesn’t exactly make sense unless you consider that Obama’s chief objective over the next two years is to win re-election.
She has two assets that Obama desperately needs. First, she can help him wage an effective campaign in Florida — a state he won in 2008 and almost certainly needs to win again if he hopes to remain president. Second, as an active member of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Wasserman Schultz is a much-needed bridge to a community that is already terribly suspicious of the president and his intentions toward Israel.
At a recent newsmaker breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Wasserman Schultz pointedly said that:
One of the most tremendous sources of pride for me is that I am the first Jewish woman to represent the state of Florida in Congress. And another tremendous source of pride is that I am a pro-Israel Jewish member of Congress and I proudly support a president that is pro-Israel.
Whether Obama is pro-Israel or not is open to debate. His recent public call for the use of the pre-1967 war borders as the basis for negotiations leading to an independent Palestinian state has a lot of people thinking he isn’t. Obama needs the support of the Jewish-American community, which is overwhelmingly Democratic in its political giving and voting patterns and which is singularly important in a state like Florida. As part of her new job, Wasserman Schultz needs to play fixer. She has her work cut out for her.