Why Don’t People Like Debbie Wasserman Schultz?

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Debbie Wasserman Schultz, right, will resign as chair of the Democratic National Committee at the end of the national convention. Stephen Voss/Redux

Updated | "Why don't people like Debbie?" is a question that perplexes and frustrates Team DWS, as Debbie Wasserman Schultz's inner circle calls itself. Part of it comes with the job: Chairing the Democratic National Committee is one of the most thankless tasks in politics. Part of it is her differences of opinion with the party's progressive wing. And part of it is the perception that she has been using her powers as DNC chair to make Hillary Clinton's life easier—and Bernie Sanders's harder—in the Democratic presidential primaries.

But for all that, Wasserman Schultz, who represents Florida's 23rd congressional district in the House of Representatives, seems to get wailed on extra hard. Once a year, give or take, somebody publishes a story mocking her vanity, her naked ambition and her political flat-footedness. These stories rely heavily on anonymous quotes—some from Republicans but most from her fellow Democrats. One published by Politico in 2014 cited "three dozen current and former DNC staffers, committee officers, elected officials, state party leaders and top Democratic operatives in Washington and across the country," none of whom had anything nice to say about her. They said that, on three occasions, she tried to get the DNC to pick up the tab for her clothes, that she used party fundraisers to hit up donors for money for herself and that her obsequious attempts to get President Barack Obama to pose with her for pictures (among other minor annoyances) had irked the White House to the point that it was looking to replace her. Other reports focus on how far beneath the president's notice she is. One anonymous "former Obama official" told The Huffington Post in 2015 that the only reason the president hadn't already booted her was because, "literally, no one cares enough to get her out of there."

05_24_Debbie_Wasserman_Schultz Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, will likely face fresh calls to resign after the leak of internal committee emails. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Some members of her staff, past and present, acknowledge that she can be abrasive but still resent how the press skewers her. "You could also say Howard Dean"—DNC chair from 2005 to 2009—"rubs people the wrong way, but for some reason that didn't get as much play time as it does for her," says one with a hint of anger. "Debbie's the kind of person who's very passionate and very clear that she has goals that she wants to accomplish. Get on the train or get off."

"I think there has been a level of vitriol and personal attacks against her that we haven't seen against previous chairs," says Hilary Rosen, a Democratic consultant and friend of Wasserman Schultz. For example, says Rosen, her hair: Her tight ringlets are ridiculed by right-wing pundits, such as Fox's Greg Gutfeld, who called her "Frizzilla," Fox's Monica Crowley, who called her "she of the angry perm," Rush Limbaugh, who suggested she uses "mayonnaise in her hair," and Glenn Beck's website The Blaze, which called it "Ramen noodle hair."

Many current and former members of Team DWS describe a different Wasserman Schultz. They use words like smart, warm, tough, compassionate and hardworking. "I'm super 'Type A' and thought I was a really hardworking person, and then I met her and couldn't keep up," a former staffer says. "She just never, ever stops. She's not someone who needs to sit and recharge and watch a mindless TV show. She's just gung ho all the time."

"Gridlock is synonymous with Congress these days. And yet she got things done by just working, working, working, working," says another longtimer.

Asked about the allegation that Wasserman Schultz asked the White House to pay for her clothes, one former longtime aide fumes, "That story is complete bullshit."

"There were probably five people who were close to her at that time, and I was one of them. That never happened," the former aide says.

Some of those interviewed by Newsweek for this story pointed to her first campaign to demonstrate her work ethic and political acumen. Wasserman Schultz was first elected to office in 1992, when her boss, Peter Deutsch, left his seat in the Florida legislature to seek a seat in Congress. Then an unknown 25-year-old aide, she faced a crowded, six-way primary. Her strategy—knocking on hundreds of doors in the wet heat of the Florida summer—caused her to shed pounds so rapidly that her husband began sending her out the door in the morning with a milkshake with a raw egg in it on top of breakfast. The carbo-loading worked: At 26, she was the youngest woman ever to serve in Florida's legislature.

Many also pointed to an episode from Wasserman Schultz's first year in Congress to demonstrate how she gets things done. It was "sine die night," the last hours before Congress adjourns, and the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, named for a 7-year-old who drowned when she was trapped by a swimming pool drain, was foundering. It was one of those bills that was introduced every session, but never went anywhere. Wasserman Schultz made it her mission to get it passed—the House approved the bill, but it was tabled in the Senate. Some legislators would have let it die, but Wasserman Schultz grabbed a hapless staffer, trekked across the Hill and sat outside then–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office until he agreed to see her. It was after midnight when Reid let her in. She asked him to tuck her bill into energy legislation guaranteed to pass the Senate. He didn't give her an answer then, but she learned later that he had done it. It was her first legislative victory.

Wasserman Schultz is good at getting legislation passed, but she struggles to get people who don't know her personally to like her. For instance, a Change.org petition demanding Wasserman Schultz's resignation received more than 60,000 signatures, a similar MoveOn.org petition received more than 75,000 signatures, and more than 80,000 signed a petition on CREDO Action, a social network for activists.

Activists and progressives, in particular, seem to have a problem with her. In 2012, immigrants' rights groups criticized Wasserman Schultz over her support for a large private prison slated to be built near her congressional district. In 2015, she lost the support of medical marijuana advocates and a major donor over her belief that marijuana is a gateway drug. And some abortion rights advocates were upset last year after she told The New York Times magazine that women born after the Roe v. Wade decision are complacent when it comes to abortion rights.

One of her loudest critics is Tim Canova, a former legislative aide to Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas and former adviser to Bernie Sanders. He teaches at the Shepard Broad College of Law at Nova Southeastern University, located in Wasserman Schultz's district. "She has portrayed herself as very progressive," Canova says. "But on bread-and-butter economic issues—issues of regulation, issues of corporations and Wall Street, she is very far from progressive."

So, in January, he decided to run against her. It is the first primary challenge Wasserman Schultz has faced, but to oust an incumbent is no easy thing. The only Democrat to lose a primary so far this year is Congressman Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, who is fighting a 28-count indictment from federal prosecutors for corruption. Canova hopes to capture some of the Sanders magic that's made Hillary Clinton's life so hard by tapping into the anger of progressives.

But Wasserman Schultz is used to dealing with pissed off progressives. "She's the firewall between activists in the party and elected leaders," says Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic strategist who was interim chair before Wasserman Schultz. "And when you're the firewall, you're a target." Or as Rosen puts it, "You're basically the dog everyone likes to kick."

The job's a meatgrinder: Wasserman Schultz's predecessor, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, stayed only two years. Before him, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean spent four years polishing his name after losing a nomination fight to John Kerry. The last DNC chair to serve as long as Wasserman Schultz was Robert Strauss, who led the party from 1972 to 1977 in the wake of George McGovern's crushing defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon.

The Democratic Party Wasserman Schultz inherited in 2011 was reeling from a similar defeat. A year earlier, the party lost 63 seats in the House and seven in the Senate, losing its filibuster-proof supermajority in the bargain. It also lost 726 seats in state legislatures and six governorships. It was the biggest loss of seats in either party since the Great Depression. Wasserman Schultz's task was to stanch the bleeding and reverse the trend. To that end, she became the party's loudest advocate. "She understands that visibility is viability," says Brazile. But her high profile has drawn critics. Part of that comes down to sexism, says Kathryn DePalo, a professor of political science at Florida International University: "When a woman exerts authority in that particular sense, people are ready to knock you down whatever way they can."

"People in your own party are constantly unhappy with you," says Rosen, "and people on the other side view you as the vehicle with which to attack Democrats because it's easier to trash Debbie Wasserman Schultz than the president." 

06_03_WassermanSchultz_02 Wasserman Schultz with President Obama and Brazile, who had the DNC chair job before her and says it makes the occupant a natural target. Alex Wong/Getty

Now a small but vocal group of critics, including elected officials and party leaders, have begun to question her progressive bona fides. Her highest-profile critic has been Sanders, who on May 22 endorsed Canova. Clinton and Wasserman Schultz have been friends and allies since Clinton was first lady, and Wasserman Schultz also co-chaired Clinton’s 2008 campaign for president. So when Wasserman Schultz scheduled only six debates —half as many as the Republicans announced—the Sanders camp saw it as her shielding Clinton from scrutiny while keeping Sanders's name recognition low. And the timing of the debates—many were at odd hours or on weekends—also elicited snarls. "A lot of Bernie supporters are young people who aren't paying attention on a Saturday night," DePalo says.

Further riling the Sanders camp, Wasserman Schultz also said that any candidate who participated in a debate unsanctioned by the DNC would be "uninvited" from further debates. The move led former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, who dropped out of the race in February, to accuse Wasserman Schultz and the DNC of rigging the race. Comedian Trevor Noah asked Wasserman Schultz on The Daily Show if she was "cockblocking" Sanders. "You know, as powerful as that makes me feel, I'm not doing a very good job at rigging the outcome, or…blocking…anyone from being able to get their message out," Wasserman Schultz responded diplomatically.

Canova takes particular issue with Wasserman Schultz’s support of the payday lending industry. In December, she, along with many members of the Florida delegation, signed on as a co-sponsor of legislation that would limit the federal government's ability to regulate payday lenders in states with payday protections, like Florida. But consumer rights groups and Canova say Florida's laws don't go far enough: In Florida, the average interest rate on payday loans is 304 percent, and the average payday loan customer takes out nine loans over the course of a year, according to data compiled by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Often, the result is consumers becoming caught in a cycle of debt. "It just perpetuates, with one loan paying for another paying for another," says Karl Frisch, executive director of Allied Progress, a nonprofit group lobbying for stronger payday lending protections. In April, Frisch's group launched a campaign to highlight Wasserman Schultz's support for the bill—including two billboards along high-traffic roads in her home district labeling her "Debt Trap Debbie." Frisch also points out that, since 2004, Wasserman Schultz has accepted $68,000 in campaign contributions from payday lenders, including Amscot Financial, a former subsidiary of which pleaded guilty to civil racketeering charges in 1998 to avoid a criminal prosecution (Amscot's owner, Ian MacKechnie, also agreed to sell the company and get out of the auto insurance business in Florida). Wasserman Schultz spokesman Ryan Banfill points out that $68,000 represents only about 1 percent of the congresswoman's fundraising since 2004 and calls Frisch's attacks "a little unfair." And, he says, Wasserman Schultz also recently signed on to a bill by Democrats Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon and Elijah Cummings of Maryland designed to protect consumers from predatory payday lenders.

But Canova maintains that those who donate to Wasserman Schultz get better treatment than those who don't. "If you're just an average citizen, you don't get your calls returned," Canova says. "You don't have any access. If you're contributing money to her, you get plenty of access."

Despite a surprising fundraising haul—Canova passed the million-dollar mark in May, with, he says, more donations from Floridians than Wasserman Schultz—his campaign is a long shot. Sanders's endorsement is likely to do little to buoy him—in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where Florida's 23rd congressional district lies, Clinton smashed Sanders with more than 70 percent of the vote. And the DNC chair is one of Congress's most effective fundraisers, out-raising the average house member two-to-one, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Furthermore, she is popular in her home district, and, whatever the feelings of those who don’t like how she runs the DNC, most of them can't vote in Florida's 23rd congressional district race. Still, DePalo says it is " amazing that someone as powerful and politically popular as she is in her district has such a formidable opponent ... I still think he has a steep uphill battle, but this is an ‘anything goes’ kind of election year."

Wasserman Schultz won't say what her game plan is after November. Many suspect she will be finished with the DNC after her term ends in 2017, but her spokesman, Banfill, was elusive when asked about that. She won't retire from Congress, though, that much is certain. "She's a legislator at heart," one former staffer says. "I just can't see her doing anything but being a legislator." For now, Wasserman Schultz is focused on the party's convention, slated for late July in Philadelphia. "She's going to help elect the first woman president, although she would say she doesn't know who the nominee is," says Rosen.

Will being a rank-and-file member of the House be enough for Debbie Wasserman Schultz? Many expect Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, 76, to clock out soonish—and it's not a sure thing that Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, would be handed the job. "I think Debbie has the qualities—the ability, the energy and the political skill—to be a very significant leader in the House of Representatives," Hoyer tells Newsweek. "I don't know what her long-term play is," says one former longtime aide, "but I don't doubt that she'll have a lot of options." In the meantime, “Why don't people like Debbie?” is a question that will continue to vex Team DWS. Perhaps they should take Brazile's advice: "She's the chair of a major political party, the oldest political party, and it comes with criticism—not just people fawning over you for your autograph. People will scream at you. So what? Go home and wash your mouth out with chardonnay. That's what I do."

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Ian MacKechnie pleaded guilty to civil racketeering. MacKechnie's company, Amscot Insurance, pleaded guilty to civil racketeering.