Wasserman Schultz May Be Dems' Odd Woman Out
Democrats are hoping that the combination of Hillary Clinton at the top of their ticket and Donald Trump as the GOP standard-bearer will all but institutionalize the two parties’ gender gap. The Florida representative who chairs the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz is also a woman, as is the ranking House Democrat, Nancy Pelosi of California.
It’s a female triumvirate, at least for now. But privately, Democrats are making it clear that when it comes to the leadership of their party, they see two women as its future, not three.
When RealClearPolitics talked to current and former lawmakers and Capitol Hill staffers about the leadership styles of Clinton, Pelosi, and Wasserman Schultz, the response often heard was: Just concentrate on Clinton and Pelosi.
Most requested to talk only on background in order to speak freely -- and speak freely they did, questioning Wasserman Schultz’s leadership during the contentious Democratic presidential primary season.
That Wasserman Schultz is controversial isn’t new but the complaints have reached a new level, leading to questions about her future.
Questioned by RCP in the halls of the Capitol Thursday, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer called all three women “effective leaders.” Then he volunteered: “I don’t know what Debbie is going to do. You have to ask her.”
Wasserman Schultz, a six-term congresswoman from Florida, has said she will stay on at the DNC until her term expires in January and that she does not expect to serve another one.
But the chatter is growing as to whether she will make it to the end of her term.
“She has no friends in the White House, she has no friends on the Hill. Her own staff at the DNC overwhelming despises her,” said a Democratic strategist who knows Wasserman Schultz. “And she’s oblivious to it all.”
In the past few weeks the controversy over her tenure as party chief reached a breaking point. Speculation grew that Bernie Sanders, who has been furious over the way Wasserman Schultz handled the presidential primary debate schedule, would demand her resignation as the price of party unity. There was talk, as first reported by Fox News, that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Sanders supporter who quit her DNC vice chairman’s job after clashing with Wasserman Schultz, should get the job.
The chatter became so loud Gabbard put out a statement Thursday night denying her interest. "There's been speculation that I may be interested in becoming the Chair of the Democratic National Committee. I want to say unequivocally that I have absolutely no interest in that position. If it were offered to me, I would not accept it,” she said.
Surviving the twists and turns of Washington politics is no easy task for anyone. Clinton and Pelosi have been successful at it, those in the party say, because they are known for building coalitions and working together. One of the criticisms of the DNC chief is that she is seen as being solely for Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
But the congresswoman, who is the longest serving DNC chief in modern history, has her defenders -- and powerful ones at that.
President Obama defended her tenure while fundraising in Florida last weekend, offering comments his White House press secretary echoed on Thursday.
“The president made clear that Debbie Wasserman Schultz has always had his back, and he’s going to have hers,” Josh Earnest said at his daily briefing.
She and Vice President Biden are close. He was scheduled to host a fundraiser for her in Miami on Sunday but that was canceled after the mass shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic operative who is well respected in the party, pointed out the difficulties of having the top party job, such as balancing the needs of national candidates for the presidency, the Senate and the House with the needs of state party chairs.
“She has the most diverse role of any of three leaders because she represents both the national and local level,” Brazile told RCP. “And in an election year it’s tough.”
There are also staff at the DNC loyal to her who point out the chairwoman has performed the job under enormous pressure from multiple segments of the party. Her defenders also note Wasserman Schultz has retired $24 million in DNC debt and has helped build up the state parties. In 2016, she has traveled to 16 states to support Democrats and headlined 294 events in her capacity as chair. Additionally, she has contributed $200,000 to House Democrats.
“She works triple time to get everything done,” said Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, who is a longtime friend of the congresswoman.
Some of the grievances against Wasserman Schultz have been aired publicly: Gabbard quit her position as a vice chairman at the DNC after she claimed she was banned from a Democratic primary debate for complaining about candidates who were left off the stage (Wasserman Schultz denied this account). The debate schedule was a major lightning rod. Sanders supporters accused Wasserman Schultz of scheduling the debates at odd times and locations, presumably to protect Clinton from Sanders’ challenge.
Yet that apparently hasn’t helped her with the Clintons, either. The DNC chief and Clinton had a falling out during the 2008 presidential campaign when Wasserman Schultz, ostensibly a Clinton supporter, allegedly reached out to the Obama campaign, offering her support before the then-Illinois senator had locked up the nomination.
Wasserman Schultz has also had run-ins with Pelosi, the first woman to ever serve as House speaker.
She and Pelosi clashed in 2011 when Wasserman Schultz gave the boot to the DNC Secretary Alice Germond, a longtime friend of Pelosi’s. The ensuing backlash grew to the point where Wasserman Schultz made Germond secretary emeritus to calm the troops.
Pelosi, however, publicly defended Wasserman Schultz earlier this year when her leadership was under attack.
"Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz has the respect of her colleagues for her efforts and her leadership to unify the party and to win the election in November," she said.
Clinton and Pelosi, by contrast, have a relationship based on mutual admiration, according to several party sources. Several described the two as “good friends.”
“If you’ve been in town long enough you just get to know people and you respect them,” said one Democratic lawmaker. “Personal relationships matter.”
Former Rep. Lynn Woolsey, who organized a 2010 Women’s History Month reception in the Capitol that then-Speaker Pelosi and then-Sen. Clinton attended, said the two “know how to work together. They respect one another.”
But, in the end, no matter how long Wasserman Schultz stays in the DNC job or how many new twists and turns the 2016 campaign takes, publicly the three women will keep their best faces forward.
“They all know each other and have personal relations and I’m confident at the end of the day the Democratic Party will be unified,” Brazile said.
After House votes on Wednesday, Pelosi was seen talking intensely to Wasserman Schultz on the House floor, gesturing at her while the younger lawmaker nodded and listened. When she was done, Pelosi gave Wasserman Schultz a hug and went on her way.