In primary challenge, Wasserman Schultz faces unprecedented test

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For Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the problems with the left just keep coming.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) chief has infuriated many Democrats with her handling of the party’s presidential primary debates. She drew further howls from liberals for deeming a whole generation of young women “complacent” about their abortion freedoms. 
And now she’s facing a primary challenge from a liberal Wall Street reformer who says she’s a corporate shill detached from her district.
{mosads}The challenge highlights the difficulty facing Wasserman Schultz as she juggles her dual roles as Florida representative and head of the DNC — duties that sometimes come into conflict.
Timothy Canova, a professor at the Shepard Broad College of Law in Florida’s Nova Southeastern University, says Wasserman Schultz’s positions on trade, criminal justice, consumer protection and drug policy reform — among others — are evidence that she’s sold out to corporate interests at the expense of her constituents.
It marks the first primary challenge to Wasserman Schultz since her arrival on Capitol Hill in 2005.
Canova launched his bid last week on a platform that pulls more than a few pages from that of populist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the Democratic presidential hopeful who’s waged a surprisingly strong challenge to front-runner Hillary Clinton by attacking from the left. 
In that mold, Canova is vowing to fight President Obama’s trade agenda, reform the criminal justice system, rein in big banks and curtail the influence of money in politics — all issues where he sees Wasserman Schultz as vulnerable.
“People here on the ground — I hear left and right, you name it — are just dissatisfied that she’s not responsive, she takes people for granted, and it’s becoming evident in the way she votes on an awful lot of issues,” Canova said Friday by phone. 
“She takes a lot of corporate money, and she votes for corporate interests contrary to the interest of her own constituents.” 
Canova, a former aide to the late Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.), is pointing to a host of votes that, he says, make Wasserman Schultz a bad fit for the district.
He says she fought against new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau guidelines governing car loans and pay-day lenders. 
He’s quick to note that she opposed a 2014 Florida referendum to legalize medical marijuana, calling her “a drug warrior” in the pockets of a private prison industry that promotes incarcerations. 
And he’s highlighting the fact that she was one of just 28 House Democrats to support the fast-track trade bill that’s greased the skids for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a huge international accord that’s a top priority of Obama but remains anathema to liberals in his own party.
Canova said the TPP would be an environmental catastrophe for South Florida, which “is really facing, in the long-term, an existential problem with climate change and rising oceans.”
“In a democracy, you have to hold your officials accountable,” Canova said. “I was hoping somebody would step forward and challenge her. Nobody else would, and that’s really the basis of the challenge.”
Canova has a tough road ahead. Wasserman Schultz, as head of the DNC, is the most prominent Democrat in Florida; she’s a prodigious fundraiser for the party; and she glided to a sixth term in 2014 with 63 percent of the vote.
Still, in an environment when political non-conformers like Sanders and Donald Trump have attracted support by simple virtue of their outsider status, Canova sees an opening.
“There’s a perception … that she’s bullet-proof here at home because she wins by big majorities,” he said. “But she’s never been challenged in a primary.” 
Washerman Schultz has faced some difficulty representing her district while also serving as a figurehead role for her party. 
Opposing fast-track, for example, would have created terrible political optics for the Democrats, raising questions as to why the head of the party opposed Obama on the item at the very top of his economic agenda.
A similar dilemma confronted Wasserman Schultz ahead of her vote in support of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran — an enormous diplomatic win for the president that remains highly unpopular in her heavily Jewish district. (Canova said he also supports the accord).
Sean Bartlett, a spokesman for Wasserman Schultz, defended the congresswoman this week, saying she has “a long record of protecting seniors, families and children, and working to expand opportunity for more people.
“The people of South Florida know they have a fighter in their corner in Debbie Wasserman Schultz,” Bartlett said in an email.
The primary challenge arrives as Wasserman Schultz has been subject of a series of controversies on the national stage. She raised eyebrows this month when she suggested millennial women take their reproductive health rights for granted.
“Here’s what I see: a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided,” she told the New York Times Magazine.
She’s also been at the center of the ongoing controversy over the Democrats’ presidential debate schedule. The DNC stirred a hornet’s nest last year in announcing six debates through the primary season –– roughly a quarter of the number of debates in 2008 and half the number available to the Republican candidates this cycle. 
The schedule led to a very public — and very embarrassing — squabble between Wasserman Schultz and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a vice chairwoman of the DNC who had pushed for more debates. 
It also led many liberals — including Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — to charge the DNC with rigging a schedule designed to advantage Clinton by denying her opponents opportunities to face off against her in prime-time forums. 
It’s a notion to which Canova said he subscribes.
“It does seem to have the appearance that she’s trying to favor one candidate over the other two,” he said. “The appearance alone is disturbing.” 
Democratic leaders have rushed to Wasserman Schultz’s defense. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this month said she has full confidence in the DNC head to lead the party to success at the polls in November.
“She has all the stamina and enthusiasm for the job that she has, and I believe that she has the confidence of the president and will the nominee of our party,” Pelosi said. “And that’s where these decisions are made.”
Canova, perhaps revealing some degree of sympathy for the pressures facing Wasserman Schultz as DNC chief, emphasized that he wants to the focus the race on local issues, not his opponent’s role as head of the national party.
“People ask me, ‘Is it because of her handling of the DNC?’ And to tell you the truth, no,” he said Friday. “It really deals how she has not well represented her constituency at home.” 
The primary contest is slated for Aug. 30.
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