Wasserman Schultz: The cardinal mom

PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. — Sitting in a meeting on a sunny afternoon in her Florida district, sophomore Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) navigates the delicate balance of life as a mother and congresswoman.

“Mommy, what’s Daddy’s work number?” her 7-year-old daughter Rebecca queries from the next room. Pausing the meeting, Wasserman Schultz takes a moment to relay the number before continuing to talk about the importance of swimming-pool safety.

Her children have a day off school during congressional recess and Wasserman Schultz brings Rebecca to several meetings throughout a district that could be described as a suburban anywhere, with palm trees, strip malls and KFC. Rebecca, a mini version of the second-term lawmaker with wavy brownish hair, patiently munches on fruit and plays her twin brother Jake’s GameBoy while her mom discusses Medicare reimbursements at a local rehabilitation hospital. Jake chose to play sports instead of going to work with his mom. Preschooler Shelby, 3, is too young to bring along.

A mother of three, chairwoman of a House Appropriations Committee panel and a deputy whip, Wasserman Schultz has her work cut out for her. But talking to her, you don’t get the sense that she’s frazzled. Young and fun and spunky, Wasserman Schultz does not fit the prototype of the stuffy, serious Washington politician.

In fact, she doesn’t like Washington. But who can blame her when her district’s blue skies, warm temps and palm trees are a stark contrast to a cold April in the nation’s capital? Her district engulfs a chunk of Miami Beach and parts of its outlying areas.

“[Washington] is a nice place to work and that would be about it,” the petite blonde says.

Wasserman Schultz praises her husband Steve, a banker, for playing such a large role in watching the children when she is tending to legislative business on the Hill.

A member of the 30-Something Working Group, Wasserman Schultz — who is, at 40, apparently still young enough to be a member — has spent countless late nights on the House floor, expounding on Democratic talking points as the C-SPAN cameras roll. And the speeches have led people from around the country to write her.

In her Pembroke Pines office, surrounded by pictures, awards and a few caricatures, Wasserman Schultz signs a picture for a Pennsylvanian who wants to surprise his wife with a signed picture on her birthday.

A native Long Islander, Wasserman Schultz relocated to the Sunshine State to attend the University of Florida. She had grand plans to be a veterinarian. But challenging science classes forced her to examine other options, and she found she had a new passion: public service.

And she was thrilled at the prospect of spending her life helping people, and getting paid for it. “My parents always told me to reach for the stars and that’s all you can expect for yourself,” the lawmaker says. “It’s important to try to make the world a better place, and to do that as a job was amazing to me.”

Wasserman Schultz has always had a knack for politics. As a 25-year-old aide, her boss, then-state Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), encouraged her to throw her hat into the ring for a seat on the state legislature.

Though she and her husband, whom she met at a softball game, were recently married and had just bought their first house, they made some concessions, borrowed money from their parents and began to campaign.

She quit her job for Deutsch and went canvassing door-to-door, visiting 25,000 households. After six months of campaigning for eight hours a day, she lost 18 pounds and won a six-way primary with 53 percent of the vote.

“People got to know me personally,” she says as she monitors her daughter’s Internet use and reaches around to tickle her.
“Mom!” Rebecca screams in annoyance, but Wasserman Schultz says she can’t help it.

She rifles through her purse to give Rebecca change for the vending machine. Minutes later, Rebecca pops back into the office with a Three Musketeers bar, but asks her mom for more change so she can fill her M&M slot machine, a toy that Rebecca fills instead with Skittles. The congresswoman indulges in a candy bar as well.

“The way to keep me happy is keeping me in Snickers,” she jokes as a staff member brings her a Snickers bar, though she whispers that she prefers Musketeers.

Scooting around South Florida in her silver-blue Honda Odyssey minivan, Wasserman Schultz looks like any other mother from the area. She is a Brownie troop leader and a regular at her children’s sporting events. The next day she plans to visit Shelby’s preschool and talk to the class about her job, explaining life as a congresswoman and such things as how politicians make laws to control how fast your parents can drive.

Wasserman Schultz is a thin, kempt woman in a medium-brown skirt-suit and light-pink nail polish. The office doorknob bears a sign that is at odds with the lawmaker: “I’m out of bed and dressed — what more do you want?” it reads.

In meetings with constituents she reiterates: “You don’t have to keep calling me the ‘Congresswoman.’” Pledging to help with their causes, Wasserman Schultz tells them, “I’m glad to be a public advocate. If there’s any way I can be an advocate, speak on your behalf, write a letter ...”

In a meeting discussing Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters, she pauses because Rebecca’s M&M slot machine is too loud. She says, “I’m listening,” and hurries to close the office door.

Though she’s concentrating on two things, she ensures the two advocates that she will do her best to get money for the project.

“Between Kendrick and I, we can try to tag-team and bring it to [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.)] attention,” she says, referring to her Florida colleague, Kendrick Meek (D).

Meek and Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), her congressional neighbors, are among her closest friends in Congress. She and Meek got to know each other in the state legislature.

Wasserman Schultz says she’s also very close to her D.C. roommates: Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Melissa Bean (D-Ill.).

As chairwoman of the legislative branch panel, Wasserman Schultz has taken advantage of the megaphone of leadership.
She has often held Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers’s feet to the fire over the price tag and schedule of the Capitol Visitor Center project, which she claims is her biggest frustration as chairwoman because it’s millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

Aspirations for the upper chamber are not a concern. Wasserman Schultz says she doesn’t have any. “I love the rough and tumble of the House,” she says.

She confesses it would be nearly impossible to “represent the state and be a mom for my kids. Hopefully, my constituents will be happy to be represented by me for awhile.