Youth is no longer an impasse for Wasserman Schultz

It’s a sweltering July day on Capitol Hill, and although Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) has a permanent shadow, it’s not a very big one. He’s Jake, her 5-year-old son.

For the freshman lawmaker, who considers herself to be among the most devoted mothers you’ll find in Congress, Take Our Kids to Work Day is more than an annual event. The week in question is Jake’s turn to travel to D.C. with his mom; he alternates weeks throughout the summer with twin sister Rebecca.

 
 

 

It is his third visit this year, and this time mother and son have attended a Nationals baseball game, read a book together in the reading room of the Library of Congress and toured the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Viewed through the lens of an enterprising youngster like Jake, the Capitol can provide its own entertainment. There are fire hydrants to climb on, stairs to run up and down and, if your mother happens to be a member of Congress, aides to play with. While his mother takes a photo with two young constituents, Jake puts the many cause bracelets he wears on his wrist to another use: He uses them to play catch with a staffer.

After mom joins in for a round of catch, it’s off to the House floor for a quick vote before settling down for lunch in the Members Dining Room.

Such an arrangement is nothing new for Schultz. Jake and Rebecca were her frequent guests in Tallahassee when the Florida Legislature was in session. When her third daughter, Shelby, was born in 2003, she brought her to the Statehouse every week, even building a makeshift nursery in her office. She was known to meet with lobbyists with Shelby sleeping next to her in an infant seat.

As we settle for a late lunch, the congresswoman orders a grilled cheese for Jake and a fruit plate with yogurt sauce for herself. She confesses that her eating habits are not as healthy as they appear; she already downed a late-morning burger from McDonald’s on South Capitol Street. The fact that she knows where it is confirms that it’s a frequent stop for her.

Such an affinity for bad food served fast undoubtedly comes from years on the campaign trail. Still not yet 39 years old, she has spent nearly half her life in politics.

The Long Island native moved to the Sunshine State to attend the University of Florida and never left. Soon after graduating in 1988, she took a job as a legislative aide to former Rep. Peter Deutsch (D), who was then a state representative.

When Deutsch decided to run for Congress in 1992, Wasserman Schultz was set to run his campaign for him. But on the eve of the campaign, he called and suggested a more ambitious idea: She should run for his seat in the Legislature.

She entered a six-way Democratic primary as the prohibitive underdog; the local party kingmakers were dismissive. “Sure, honey,” was their sarcastic attitude toward her earnestness, as she recalls.

She credits Deutsch with teaching her the retail political skills that enabled her to prevail. “I learned how to connect with people and stay connected with them, to be a grassroots representative,” she says.

The $21,000 she raised bought her only a few signs and targeted mailings, but she knocked on 25,000 doors in six months. “To this day, I have people telling me they remember giving me a glass of juice,” she says. Which she probably needed, as she was dressed in a business suit and stockings to minimize her youthful appearance, despite the stifling heat of South Florida in July and August.

Wasserman Schultz was sworn in as the youngest woman in the history of the state body. She was 26.

Term limits forced her out in 2000, but she successfully ran for state Senate, before setting her sights on the U.S. House in 2004. This time, her reputation preceded her.
She faced no primary opposition at all, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) traveled to Florida to campaign on her behalf. She was elected with 70 percent of the vote.

Despite her early political experience, Wasserman Schultz only visited D.C. about once a year, to lobby on state issues. Now that she has arrived in the major leagues, some adjustments are required. As opposed to only two or three staff members, she now has 15, and “they’re all pulling at you at once,” she says.

On the other hand, the schedule in Washington is more predictable, so it’s better for family life, she explains, as she implores Jake to take another bite or two of his grilled cheese.

Unexpectedly, her commute has improved as well. “It’s easier to get here than it was to Tallahassee,” she says, thanks to the greater number of flights to Reagan National. She commutes home every week, sometimes beginning at 4 a.m. on Tuesdays. “I don’t want to lose a night with the kids,” she says, and with her husband, Steve Schultz, a banker to whom she has been married for 14 years.

She agrees that there are some parallels between the state and national legislatures in terms of establishing oneself as a young legislator.

“Youth was a bigger obstacle than gender,” she says of her early years in the Florida body. “Most of the members were old enough to be my parents or grandparents, and it’s the same here.”
The challenge, she says, is to “strike the right balance of not being brash and overcompensating.”

It’s a challenge that was put to the test this spring, when the controversy over Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who has since died after her feeding tubes were removed, migrated from her home state of Florida to Washington. Wasserman Schultz had a strong background on the case as a veteran of the state battle than ensued in 2003 when Gov. Jeb Bush (R) spearheaded an effort to reinsert Schiavo’s feeding tube.

The congresswoman says that she felt the issue should be left to state courts and not legislatures and that she had reams of information and arguments to bolster her case. But having been in Congress only two months, she was wary of leading on the issue.

“I was concerned about how to approach my involvement,” she admits, although “there was no way I could let that go.”

She offered her colleagues “talk sheets” on the matter and says that to this day she has never encountered “one ounce of resentment” from more senior members. Quite the contrary, she says, the case helped her relationships with her new colleagues.

The $100,000 she donated to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee before even being elected — thanks to her relatively easy campaign, she had cash left over — probably didn’t hurt, either.

She’s the only freshman on the Democratic Whip Team. She’s also been named to the Steering and Policy committees, and chairs the Caucus’s Jobs and Economy Task Force.

But she insists she’s not seeking any greater glory or to overshadow her fellow freshmen. “I want to be a team player,” she says. “No task is too small.”