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The Chairwoman Who Carries Crayons

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A couple of days ago, President Barack Obama announced his choice for new chair of the Democratic National Committee: Congresswoman Debby Wasserman Schultz, who represents the 20th District here in South Florida (Broward County).  For those who have followed Debby's career, this appointment comes as no surprise; from day one, the folks on Capitol Hill recognized that she was that rare combination of brains, passion and inexhaustible energy.  She has a huge responsibility in front of her: being the face of the Democratic Party during the next presidential election; representing the people of her district; raising money; and perhaps most importantly, raising three young children.  Indeed, she is likely the first Chair of the Democratic National Committee who carries crayons in her purse.

   What follows is Debby Wasserman Schultz's entry in my book, "The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Members of Congress."  (pp. 584-588)

   During the 2008 presidential election cycle, Florida representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz was all over the map.  Whether introducing high-profile legislation, hosting fundraisers, or out on the national hustings campaigning -- first for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, then for Senator Barack Obama -- Wasserman Debbie-wasserman-schultz Schultz  seemed to have discovered how to live a 26-hour day.  As a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, Chief Deputy Whip in the House and a highly active legislator, the young mother with the amazing head of blond curls (she once spent five months at the pinnacle of the "Top Ten Tresses' list on "Superhair.net") was seemingly in five places at once.  For months on end, she "routinely worked the news-show circuit, waving the party flag."  And then, at the Democratic National Convention, she was chosen to give one of the seconding speeches for Barack Obama.  What made Wasserman Schultz's punishing pace all the more remarkable was a terrible secret she had kept from all but a handful of family and staff: that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  Moreover, during this period she underwent seven surgical procedures, including a double mastectomy, removal of her ovaries and reconstructive surgery. 

            Indeed, nine days after one of those surgeries, the congresswoman hosted a major fundraiser for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  Unbeknownst to all those attending the event, Wasserman Schultz was "receiving pain medication from a pump hidden in her purse."  Her brother Steve Wasserman, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Washington, recounts how "she was only half out of anesthesia and she was on the BlackBerry."         

            As one of only two congressional mothers with children under the age of 10, Wasserman Schultz is also one of the few who regularly carries crayons in her purse.  At one widely publicized event Wasserman Schultz, unable to find a pen, scribbled notes in crayon.  Her political opponent seized upon this as evidence of what she termed Wasserman Schultz's "frazzledness" and unfitness for office.  When questioned about it, Wasserman Schultz responded, "I may not always have a pen in my purse, but I always have crayons."  To constituents in her South Florida district, the fact that Debbie Wasserman Schultz can be counted on to "always have crayons" is just one of the things they love about her; in two of her three reelection campaigns for the House, she was unopposed.   

            Debbie Wasserman, the daughter of Larry and Ann (Oberweger) Wasserman was born in Forest Hills, New York, on September 27, 1966. The Wassermans had come to the United States from Russia and Poland in the early years of the 20th century; the Oberwegers from Austria.  Growing up, Debbie and her younger brother Steve knew all four of their grandparents and both their great grandmothers.  The 398px-Debbie_Wasserman_Schultz,_official_portrait,_112th_Congress family was not particularly observant, although Steve did become bar mitzvah in 1982.  For more than 25 years Debbie's father, a CPA was chief financial officer of a children's clothing company.  From age 2 to 12, Debbie and her family lived in Lido Beach, an unincorporated hamlet in the town of Hempstead, Nassau County.  In 1978, the family moved to Melville in New York's Suffolk County, where Debbie graduated from High School in 1984.  Remembering Debbie as a child, Larry Wasserman said "She spoke at a very early age.  She was always out there and was never the shy, retiring type."  Nonetheless, The Almanac of American Politics noted that while in school, "she ran for student council every year and always lost." 

            In September 1984, Debbie Wasserman entered the University of Florida (her father's alma mater).   Originally intent upon becoming a veterinarian, Wasserman was soon "bitten by the political bug," and changed her major to political science.  She also became involved in campus politics. Wasserman, the perennial also-ran in junior high and high school, was elected president of the student senate at U.F.  Graduating with a B.A. in political science 1988, Wasserman joined the staff of then-State Representative Peter Deutsch, who represented a Broward County district . While working her way up to become Deutsch's chief of staff, Wasserman commuted between the state capitol and Gainesville, where she earned an M.A. in political campaigning in 1990.  The following year, Debbie Wasserman met banker Steve Schultz at a softball game; they were soon married. 

            In 1992 Deutsch gave up his seat in the Florida House in order to make a run Congress.  Wasserman Schultz -- who was planning on managing Deutsch's campaign -- was instead encouraged by her boss and mentor to run for his seat.  Working with her husband "to figure out if they could afford a run for the state house," the 25-year old Wasserman Schultz entered what would grow to become a 6-candidate Democratic primary.  Making up in shoe leather what she lacked in cash she mounted an aggressive campaign, going door-to-door introducing herself to South Florida's vast voter-rich condominium community --a sizeable percentage of whom were retired ShowImage New York Jews.  Wasserman Schultz won the Democratic primary with 53% of the vote, thus avoiding a runoff.  "It helped frankly," her brother Larry later recalled, "that the district she won in has a large Jewish population.  A lot of the elderly Jewish people . . . in her district treat her like she's their granddaughter."  At 26, Debbie Wasserman Schultz became the youngest woman ever elected to the Florida Legislature.

              Debbie Wasserman Schultz went on to serve eight years in the state House, including a term as House Democratic Leader Pro Tempore, House Democratic Floor Leader and Chair of the Broward Legislative Delegation.  From 1994-1996, she chaired the House Committee on Higher Education.  Term-limited in 2000, she ran for and won a seat in the Florida State Senate.  During her dozen years in Tallahassee, Wasserman Schultz was one of the legislature's most liberal members.  Among her more notable legislative measures was one "requiring gender price parity for dry cleaning," and another ensuring that an equal number of men and women be appointed to state boards.  Her most successful-- best-publicized -- legislative effort was the "Florida Residential Swimming Pool Safety Act, a measure mandating that all new pool construction include pool safety equipment.  During her last year in Tallahassee, Senator Wasserman Schultz became embroiled with then-Governor Jeb Bush over the issue of Terri Schiavo -- a brain-damaged woman whose feeding tube the governor and a majority of Republicans sought to reinsert.  Wasserman Schultz argued forcefully that the issue was a matter for the courts, not the legislature.  The matter of Terri Schiavo would reemerge during her first term in Congress.   

            In 2004, Peter Deutsch gave up his safe Congressional seat and declared his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the seat being vacated by the retiring Democratic Senator Bob Graham. As she had a dozen years earlier, Wasserman Schultz quickly entered the race to succeed Peter Deutsch -- this time in Washington. (Deutsch, who would carry only three counties, lost the three-way Democratic primary to Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor, who in turn wound up losing the November general election 49%-48% to Republican Mel Martinez.)  Even prior to announcing her candidacy, Wasserman Schultz had been out soliciting campaign funds; more than a year before the 2004 primary, she had raised $115,000.  In all, she raised more than $1 million for what turned out to be -- most unusually for an open seat -- an uncontested primary and a nondeicompetitive general election.  In June 2004 she pledged $100,000 from her campaign treasury to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a "staggering contribution from a non-incumbent."  In the general election, she called for "repeal of the Bush tax cuts, a reduction in the budget deficit, greater use of diplomacy, improved prescription drug coverage, and gay and abortion rights."  Running against local realtor Margaret Hostetter -- who railed against the "homosexual agenda" in the public schools -- Wasserman Schultz won a convincing margin of 70%-30%.  Since that initial victory, she has been unbeatable;  a situation not likely to change in the future. Two days after her victory, Steve and Debbie were "sitting in an Orlando hotel room, waiting to go to Walt Disney World with [their] young children.

            Upon her arrival on Capitol Hill, Representative Wasserman Schultz made an immediate splash:  When it came her time be photographed with Speaker Dennis Hastert, the freshman representative asked Hastert to use a copy of the Tanach -- the Hebrew Bible, instead of a Christian Bible for her swearing in.  Her request sent the Speaker's staff scrambling to find a copy.  They were unsuccessful.  Finally, someone recalled that Representative Gary Ackerman, who has long hosted both a Torah study group and a minyan in his office, had innumerable copies.  Ackerman quickly delivered a copy to Hastert's office, which in the words of The Hill's Albert Eisele, "convinced Wasserman Schultz that he's a mensch and bubbala."  Two years later, this episode was recalled when Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison -- the first Muslim elected to Congress -- asked to be sworn in on a copy of the Quran.  Ellison's request drew quite a bit of critical heat from conservative commentators. One, Jewish commentator Dennis Prager -- a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council -- argued that "This has nothing to do with the Quran.  It has to do with the first break of a tradition of having a Bible present at a ceremony of installation of a public official since George Washington inaugurated the tradition."  It was quickly pointed out to Prager that John Quincy Adams took his presidential oath in 1825 on a law book; Theodore Roosevelt used no Bible, and that Governors Madeline Kunin (Vermont) and Linda Lingle (Hawaii) and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz had used copies of the Tanach.  Despite a welter of evidence to the contrary, Ellison's use of the Quran continued to be criticized.

             One of the first issues greeting Wasserman Schultz upon her arrival on Capitol Hill was the continuing controversy over Terri Schiavo.  It was no longer an issue for Florida Governor Jeb Bush; now it was in the hands of his brother the president, who insisted that Congress pass a measure requiring the woman's feeding tube be reinserted.  Wasserman Schultz -- with just two months in the House -- was wary of taking a lead on the issue. "I was concerned about how to approach my involvement," she admits, although "there was no way I could let that go." Firmly convinced that "Congress would set a dangerous precedent if it attempted to circumvent the courts," she had "reams of information and arguments bolstering her case."  Turning these "reams" into "talk sheets," she distributed them among her new colleagues, who eventually took her advice.  She insists that she never encountered "one ounce of resentment" from any of her senior colleagues.  "Quite the contrary," she noted, "the case helped her relationships with her new colleagues."

            Wasserman Schultz, who had hoped to take Peter Deutsch's slot on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee -- a near impossibility for a freshman -- was instead given a seat on Financial Services.  On that committee, she "called for a commission to examine the state of natural disaster insurance."  Then, after an insurance company denied her additional life insurance coverage because she "might travel to Israel at some time," she filed a bill making such a practice illegal.  As of 2011, that bill has yet to make it out of the House.  During her first term she also won unanimous approval of a resolution designating May "American Jewish History Month." (The Senate version, which was also passed unanimously, was sponsored by Senator Arlen Specter.  The annual observance was created to recognize "the accomplishments of American Jews and the important role that members of the Jewish community have played in the development of American culture."   At the ceremony in which President George W. Bush signed the proclamation Wasserman Schultz said, "This is an historic occasion.  Generations to come will have the chance to live without anti-Semitism through greater understanding and awareness of the significant role that American Jews have played in U.S. history."

            Debbie Wasserman Schultz was the only freshman House member asked to join the Democratic whip team.  She also "immediately took an active role" in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) becoming co-chair of the Democratic Party's "Red to Blue" campaign, which "highlights top Democratic campaigns across the country."  Its basic function is to turn "Red (Republican) congressional districts "Blue (Democratic). Working closely with DCCC chair (and future White House Chief of Staff) Rahm Emanuel, Wasserman Schultz "became a party spokesman and a mentor for Democratic recruits."                

            When Democrats took control of the House following the 2006 election, Wasserman Schultz became "a prime beneficiary."  She traded in her seat on Financial Services for a position on Appropriations, where she "immediately and unexpectedly" became a "cardinal" as chair of the Legislative Branch Subcommittee. She was also named to House Judiciary.  Additionally, Majority Whip James Clyburn tapped her as a "chief deputy majority whip."  As a member of House Judiciary she testified before Senate Judiciary against the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, "warning that his support of government intrusion could lead to more Schiavo cases."  While debating in committee a 2006 bill aimed at preserving the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance (which had been ruled unconstitutional by a federal court), Wasserman Schultz scolded Republican Judiciary Committee members for ignoring "the things that people actually have to deal with in their daily lives, like gas prices, health care costs, fiscal responsibility, a real debate on Iraq."

            During her three terms in the House, Representative Wasserman Schultz has been "a reliable liberal vote," whose positions have brought her perfect ratings from such liberal groups as Americans for Democratic Action, the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Conservation Voters, and very low ratings from such conservative groups as the American Conservative Union, Club for Growth and the Family Research Council.

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http://www.kurtfstone.typepad.com

Kurt Stone is a rabbi, writer, lecturer, political activist, professor, actor, and medical ethicist. A true "Hollywood brat" (born and raised in the film industry), Kurt was educated at the University of California, the Eagleton Institute of (more...)
 
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