The chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee is running late, prepping for an MSNBC interview while she brushes her tangled mass of blonde curls in the bathroom, a top adviser hovering behind her. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, dabbing on blue eye shadow, dismisses a suggestion that she call Newt Gingrich the “godfather of gridlock.” A staffer feeds her fodder against Mitt Romney: “Spent his time laying off people, shipping jobs overseas ...” The Florida congresswoman looks bemused: “All in five minutes? No problem,” she says. The talk turns to Ron Paul: “If I have to hit him at all, I’ll hit him by saying he’s unbelievably extreme.” Then she jogs to the basement studio at the party’s Capitol Hill headquarters, slides a mike under her purple dress, and delivers her message.
Party chairs are usually backstage fundraisers, but Wasserman Schultz is a nonstop broadcaster for Team Obama, sometimes delivering her points in robotic fashion. Her situation can be awkward, as the president’s survival may depend on running against her fellow lawmakers, who resent being cast as part of a dysfunctional body. She tries to wish that away, saying: “I don’t think the president means Democrats when he’s criticizing Congress.” Many Democrats are also steamed at the lack of attention they get from Obama. “I’ve had zero personal contact,” says California Rep. Dennis Cardoza, who was told by one White House official that Obama looks “pained” when prodded to socialize with lawmakers. Former Tennessee congressman John Tanner says Obama summoned him only to solicit his vote, and he offers some advice: “Call on people when you don’t ask them for something.”
“I’ve heard concern about that,” Wasserman Schultz concedes. “I’ve encouraged the president and the staff in the White House to be more inclusive and cognizant of notifying members when the president is going to be in their district or state.”
Wasserman Schultz is a fighter—one whose passion occasionally gets her into trouble. She insists that “Republicans are waging a war on women,” for instance, and refuses to back off, arguing that the repeal of Obamacare would hurt her gender.
A few weeks ago, in talking about the day a crazed gunman shot Rep. Gabby Giffords in the head, Wasserman Schultz pivoted to how “the discourse in America” had taken “a very precipitous turn towards edginess and a lack of civility with the growth of the Tea Party movement.” Republican national chairman Reince Priebus demanded that she apologize for her “reckless comments blaming the Tea Party for the horrific Tucson shooting.”
Wasserman Schultz makes no apologies. Nibbling a sandwich in her House office, she says: “I make strongly worded statements so people pay attention a little to what I’m saying.” Former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe admires her feistiness: “You’ve got to throw punches every single day. That’s the job, to get the base fired up.” In a sea of male party functionaries, Wasserman Schultz hits a demographic sweet spot. She’s female and Jewish, and she hails from a crucial swing state. She is also adept at parachuting into hostile territory. The congresswoman appears periodically on Fox News, although she boycotts some hosts, such as Neil Cavuto, who she feels keep talking over her. At the GOP primary in New Hampshire, she chided Romney at a news conference and in the spin room after an ABC debate, calling him “a candidate without any convictions at all.”
Wasserman Schultz is regularly torn between work and her home, located in a gated community outside Ft. Lauderdale, where she lives with her husband, three children, four dogs, and a cat. At 6:30 on a Monday morning, in a T-shirt and sweats, she’s threading pink shoelaces for her 8-year-old daughter, Shelby, trying to keep her on schedule (“Hustle, please”) and offering dietary guidance (“You can’t just have a doughnut for breakfast”). When the congresswoman promises a daylong outing, Shelby is skeptical: “Are you going to clear a whole day? No phone? No texting?” she says, mock-typing with her thumbs.
Obama was drawn to “the fact that she’s a young mother and thinks about issues from that perspective,” says adviser David Axelrod. Wasserman Schultz’s manic schedule has slowed only once: she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, leading to seven operations and a double mastectomy. She kept it secret for a year, explaining: “It’s tough enough for my kids to deal with the fact that I’m not home.”
When I was in Florida, Wasserman Schultz welcomed Romney to the GOP primary there by declaring on a conference call that his candidacy was “cratering”—a call she made from the sidelines of Shelby’s soccer game.