Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz had a sound
bite ready when Donald Trump endorsed Republican presidential candidate Mitt
"They both like firing people and they've both made millions doing it," she
declared, unleashing a line that landed on two network news shows, cable news
programs and numerous newspapers and blogs.
Such moments are helping Ms. Wasserman Schultz become, practically overnight,
the face of the Democratic Party in this election year. She's doing so by
deploying a style of rhetoric that rouses populist passion and earns cheers
among many Democrats—but that critics, including some within the president's own
party, say is too divisive.
"Debbie is a fighting dynamo who will take it to the other side," says Gilda
Cobb-Hunter, a South Carolina Democratic legislator, who is one of her fans.
"But she risks turning off some people—and part of the political
The 45-year-old congresswoman from South Florida follows the GOP presidential
candidates from state to state, traveling to 71 cities in 27 states since
election season began. She is a round-the-clock talking head on cable and local
media. On Florida's primary day, Ms. Wasserman Schultz appeared on 26 TV, radio
and print outlets in an 18-hour period from Fort Lauderdale and Tampa. She's
also a prolific fund-raiser.
Her mandate comes straight from President Barack Obama, who made Ms.
Wasserman Schultz his surprise pick to head the Democratic Party last spring.
"She's my kind of person," Mr. Obama told his campaign manager Jim Messina, an
In picking Ms. Wasserman Schultz to lead the Democrats, the president turned
to a reliably liberal member of his party's House caucus rather than a moderate,
suggesting he is counting on her more to fire up the party's base than lure in
swing voters. For 2006 through 2010, Ms. Wasserman Schultz had a 90% to 100%
voting record on the liberal Americans for Democratic Action scorecard of key
congressional votes. She has supported her party's position on nearly all key
votes in recent years, including supporting health reform and the financial
While she revs up the Democratic base, she enrages the Republican opposition.
She once suggested Republicans pushing voter-ID measures "literally want to drag
us all the way back to Jim Crow laws." At a New Hampshire forum last month, she
raised the issue of her close friend Rep. Gabby Giffords' shooting by a deranged
man in the context of the changing "discourse in America" based on the
"precipitous turn towards edginess and lack of civility with the growth of the
Tea Party movement."
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus demanded an
apology—which never came. In a year of tough campaign talk all around, his
national committee has labeled her a "braying Democratic gaffe machine," and
aired commercials against her. (Mr. Priebus got into some hot water of his own
two weeks ago when he compared President Obama to the Italian cruise ship
captain who abandoned his vessel.)
Ms. Wasserman Schultz often goes to hyperbolic extremes to make her points.
In one of her first appearances in May after becoming DNC chairwoman, she said
the Republicans' record is "anti-women" and "a war on women." She called last
year's GOP budget and Medicare plan "literally a death trap for seniors" and a
burden on young people by allowing insurance companies to "throw you to the
Some Democrats worry that the tone she exemplifies is making the political
process more polarizing and governing harder.
"She has to drop the class warfare soon," says Jim Kessler, co-founder of Third Way, a think tank promoting centrist Democratic views. "In the battle for moderates and independents, the message from her and the president has to be more uplifting."
Ms. Wasserman Schultz defends her style. "Talking about the importance of helping everyone—not just millionaires and billionaires—isn't class warfare," she says. "I'm drawing sharp contrasts between the priorities and policies of the Republicans and the president. The president feels the same way I do: This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class."
Ms. Wasserman Schultz has become one of the core group of Obama advisers shaping the election year message, even as she pushes for a bigger role. "I can do strategy too," she told senior White House adviser Pete Rouse a few weeks ago. She's now on twice-weekly late-night calls with Mr. Messina, the Obama campaign manager, and frequents the White House, including meetings on women's and Jewish issues.
Returning from a Democratic retreat last month, she rode on Marine One with the president. They traded ideas on fighting Republicans in the 2012 campaign—and raising daughters through the tween and teen years.
Indeed, since being named national party chairwoman last spring, Ms. Wasserman Schultz has struggled to meet the demands from the party, from her husband and their three young children and from her South Florida congressional district filled with senior citizens. "I have three full-time jobs," she says. "There's a lot of tension."
At 6 a.m. in her Weston, Florida, home one recent day, Ms. Wasserman Schultz, wearing wet hair, no makeup and a coral-colored suit, talked to two staff members assembled in her kitchen about possible topics for her appearance within the hour on MSNBC. While she packed her bag of diet food to combat the few pounds she gained after breast-cancer treatment, her husband Steve Schultz fed their youngest child and four barking dogs.
Turning to her children, who had been in bed when she got home the night before and now wouldn't see her for several days, she noticed that her son's homework had a semicolon in the wrong place and quizzed her 8-year-old daughter for a vocabulary test.
A native New Yorker, Ms. Wasserman Schultz moved to Florida to attend the University of Florida and stayed. She started as a staffer for a state legislator until she ran for office herself in 1992.
"Debbie first knocked on my door when she was 25," recalls Beth Allen, who lived in Cooper City at the time and is now executive director of the Meyerhoff Senior Center in Hollywood, Fla.
She easily won her first election, becoming, at 26, the youngest woman ever elected to the Florida Legislature.
A decade later, she ran for Congress in the largely Democratic district encompassing Fort Lauderdale and part of Miami Beach, which includes significant Jewish, gay and wealthy constituencies. Once she won the primary with her election all but guaranteed, Ms. Wasserman Schultz showed Washington her fund-raising prowess by handing over $100,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to help other candidates.
Shortly after taking office in 2005, she showed her new colleagues another attribute—a feisty television presence. When the controversy erupted over Terri Schiavo, the Floridian in a persistent vegetative state, Ms. Wasserman Schultz appeared on national TV news shows to debate Republicans wanting to force her to be kept alive by a feeding tube.
While her husband, a loan officer at a community bank, and children stayed in Florida, Ms. Wasserman Schultz moved up the House Democratic leadership ranks in Washington quickly, initially as a lieutenant to then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel.
"It works for our family. I'm laid back, and I like my couch and the daily routine with the kids," says Mr. Schultz, adding that he is more "middle-of-the-road" and far less interested in politics than his wife. "Debbie is more driven, and politics is her thing."
The congresswoman first got the attention of Obama's team in the 2008 presidential campaign when she was an ardent and highly visible supporter of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Yet, the day after the hard-fought primary race ended, Ms. Wasserman Shultz promptly pivoted to support Mr. Obama.
After the 2010 midterm elections, Ms. Wasserman Schultz pressed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to take over the Democrats' House campaign committee, but wasn't selected despite her fund-raising and political muscle. A political newspaper ran the headline: "Wasserman Schultz's rise stalls out."
She set her sights on leading the DNC once Tim Kaine, former Virginia governor, gave up the committee chair to run for the Senate.
She relied on her growing friendship with White House aide and presidential confidante Valerie Jarrett, with whom she worked on the president's Women and Girls Council, for consideration by the Obama inner circle.
Some on the Obama team, including senior adviser David Axelrod, worried that, as a Capitol lawmaker, Ms. Wasserman Schultz wouldn't be able to stomach Mr. Obama's planned assault on Congress. This concern kept them seriously considering former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a moderate from another key swing state. But Ms. Wasserman Schultz assured the advisers that she wouldn't challenge the president on significant votes or his attack on congressional gridlock, she says.
At the same time, 2012 campaign manager Mr. Messina, who ran the DNC selection process for the president, reviewed scores of videotape of Ms. Wasserman Schultz on the stump and met several times with her.
After Mr. Obama chose her for the job that will last at least through this election, Ms. Wasserman Schultz got off to a rocky start, causing some discomfort in the administration. At a "Meet the Press" appearance in the first faceoff with her GOP counterpart in June, some Obama advisers worried about her confrontational style. "She was so tough that she almost looked ready to physically attack him," said one adviser.
Obama advisers have occasionally told her to "tone it down" and "back off a smidgen," Ms. Wasserman Schultz says. She agreed with them to enlist two seasoned Democratic female pros, Anita Dunn and Hilary Rosen, to begin giving her occasional political advice and media training, advisers say. "I'm glad to get constructive criticism," Ms. Wasserman Schultz says.
The media pros prepped her for an important Jan. 13 appearance on the "Bill Maher Show"—from her tone to her clothes (they know better than to suggest she blow out her curly hair, advisers say). Ms. Wasserman Schultz had lots of "don't'' instructions: Don't make news, don't try to be funny, don't laugh at the comedian's jokes, don't use your hands (although she balled her fists at one point and did "karate chops" when making her points). Her biggest "do:" Attack Mitt Romney, which she managed to do despite the topic of discussion: Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters.
A few days later, Ms. Wasserman Schultz was on the campaign trail—of the Republicans—in South Carolina. In Charleston, she showed up shortly before the state's last GOP debate to hold a news conference, only to find most seats empty. Two local TV crews, however, gave her the platform to attack Mr. Romney's financial disclosure and tax returns, the news of the day. She asked, "What is Mitt Romney hiding?"
Then she worked two phones to call potential Democratic congressional candidates to persuade them to run. "We really want you to run," she said to Shelley Adler, the widow of former Democratic Congressman John Adler who was defeated by Republican Jon Runyan in 2010. (Mrs. Adler announced on Jan. 31 that she would seek the seat in New Jersey.)
The DNC chairwoman wanted to stay at the Coliseum to hit the spin room, where political aides go to discuss the debate performances, in order to jab Republicans and defend Obama. But the GOP debate sponsor banned her, an aide said. Instead, she attended a "debate watch" party by a young Democratic group in Mount Pleasant, S.C. Ms. Wasserman Schultz opened the party as the debate played on a big-screen television: "Now I present the people who won't be the next president of the United States."
In the car from Columbia, S.C., on Saturday morning two days later, she rushed to call her family. Her husband ran down the weekend schedule and shopping list. "Did you use the coupons?" she asked.
Making plans for her return home the following day, she expected to make DNC press calls from the sidelines of 8-year-old Shelby's soccer game. Her 12-year-old son, Jake, was puzzled about a party invitation from a girl classmate. "That means she likes you," Ms. Wasserman Schultz told him. "Take it as a compliment." When Jake's twin, Rebecca, got on the phone, the congresswoman scolded her for staying up late the night before.
Her next call was to a radio show. "Romney cares about only one job—the president's," she said. "President Obama cares about American jobs."
After the South Carolina primary, Ms. Wasserman Schultz returned to Washington, where she shares a Capitol Hill town house with three other female House members. On her bed there lies a giant stuffed pink heart made by her husband when she underwent seven surgeries, including a double mastectomy, four years ago in a fight to beat breast cancer.
She didn't tell her House colleagues, constituents or even her children about her breast-cancer diagnosis and treatment until after it was finished. Ms. Wasserman Schultz wanted to protect her then 8-year-old twins and 4-year-old, but says she also didn't want others stopping her from fulfilling her congressional and political roles.
When some colleagues saw her on the shortlist to be party chair, they held an "intervention" of sorts. "We wanted her to reassure us that the extra work wouldn't be a threat to her personal well-being," says Rep. Bruce Braley, a close friend.
Last month she hosted the White House's Mr. Rouse at a cocktail party at the Florida House across from the Capitol before the State of the Union address. As the evening wore on, one guest asked her how she had risen to party chief so quickly.
"You don't think of it and you don't talk about it," she said. "You just work your butt off. I'm a give-me-the-ball kind of person, and the coach put me in."