Debbie Wasserman Schultz: Democratic National Committee's Feisty New Chair

Debbie Wasserman Schultz's new assignment as head of the Democratic National Committee—raising millions for the party and helping to reelect President Obama—may have been made less daunting with the death of Osama bin Laden, but the tenacious fourth-term Florida congresswoman is ready to conquer any challenge, she tells Sandra McElwaine.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Credit: Newscom

When Debbie Wasserman Schultz assumes the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee at a mini-convention in Washington on Wednesday, she’ll become the new, highly visible face of the party. A mom, a cancer survivor, a congresswoman, and a ferocious competitor, she will be surrounded by a gaggle of savvy pols, along with a friends and various members of her family, as she steps up to the platform gearing up for the 2012 campaign.

Before President Obama decided to appoint the tenacious 44-year-old Floridian and former DNC vice chairwoman, she was not at all sure she would be standing on that podium.

First she had to outmaneuver former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a favorite of White House operatives who was said to have the inside track. She only found out she had clinched the deal when her BlackBerry flashed the news in the middle of a budget committee meeting in March. Later Obama called with congratulations and put out a statement lauding her “tenacity, strength, and fighting spirit.” Others cite her astonishing fundraising ability, road warrior mentality, hardball media skills, and mastery at skewering the opposition. Another plus: She’s a woman, the fourth to head the party, with the ability to lure other women into the fold. That’s a vital factor, says former Deputy White House Chief of Staff Harold Ickes. “That’s a group that should be voting Democratic,” he says, adding that Florida remains a key swing state. “She has deep roots and real reach there.”

As chief cheerleader of the Democratic Party, her role is to produce hundreds of millions of dollars for its coffers—and help reelect Obama. The death of Osama bin Laden will aid her cause on both fronts, but Wasserman Schultz’s is still a daunting task, says former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe. “You gotta be tough, stir up the grassroots, pick up the phone, hammer away every single day, and not be afraid to ask for money,” he says. “She’s perfect for the job—she understands issues, knows how to communicate and galvanize people.”

In a phone interview, Wasserman Schultz acknowledges fundraising is her forte. “I’m good at it and enjoy it,” she says, explaining that she believes in sharing the spoils by helping other Democrats raise the necessary resources and funds to win.

Wasserman Schultz acknowledges that fundraising is her forte. “I’m good at it and enjoy it,” she says.

She also believes in civility and just plain being nice. “Being warm is important, showing people you care about them,” she says. “Even though I passionately care about our agenda and I am someone who will debate my party’s points of view, I think that debate differences need to be left in the arena, and you need to be a normal human being outside that arena.”

Wasserman Schultz says she is “thrilled” by the challenge of her new DNC role, which requires stamina, courage, and a facility for speaking out on issues and defining and promoting the differences between the two political parties. “I’m a ‘give me the ball’ kind of person,” she says. “It’s really incredible that the president came to me. But I want it because I really care about our agenda. I care about the direction that this country is moving in and I know how much it matters who is leading the way.”

The liberal fourth-term congresswoman, easily identified by her unruly mane of curls, serves on the budget and judiciary committees and as chief deputy whip. She is on her cellphone, juggling appointments in her Fort Lauderdale/Miami district, when we talk, and she gives the impression of a supremely capable, no-nonsense individual on the move, in a big hurry, speaking rapidly.

With an increasingly overflowing plate of interests, activities, and obligations, organization is Wasserman Schultz’s speciality. “I’m a mom with three young kids. I live, sleep, and breathe time management,” she says, “so I’m very confident I can do both jobs.”

(She also only requires only five hours of sleep a night.)

Her banker husband of 20 years, Steve, who oversees the household, which also includes four dogs and several tanks of goldfish, concurs. He is the stay-at-home dad that she refers to as “St. Steve.” “You really can’t put enough on her plate. The busier she is, the happier she is,” he says. "She’s a very, very driven person.”

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A transplanted New Yorker, Wasserman Schultz learned early on the value of hard work and never lacked self-assurance. Her parents taught her to reach for the stars and be the best that she could be. “I was always encouraged to set significant goals and work hard to achieve them,” she says. “And work ethic is extremely important to me. The decree I live by professionally is that I might not be able to convince everyone that I am right, and I might not always be successful, but I’m not ever going to lose because I got outworked.”

Even as she underwent seven major cancer surgeries, she refused to be defined by her illness, miss work, or frighten her children. To guard her secret, she never told her kids or colleagues, and rarely rook a day off until she had recovered, scheduling her operations during recesses, holidays, and on weekends.”We were in the middle of the presidential election, and I didn’t want people to worry and make decisions for me about what I was capable of doing. I knew it would happen if it was widely known. I knew people would say, ‘Oh, we can’t ask Debbie to do that because she has breast cancer.’”

In an effort to raise awareness about the disease in young women, three years ago she organized and co-captained the first women’s congressional softball team, which was wildly successful, raising $50,000 her first time at bat.

Opponents admire her skills. “She’s a great lady—a local girl who made good,” says Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican of Florida. “She may chew you up in battle, but then everything’s OK.

“She has not quit climbing that ladder. Believe me, there’s a great future ahead.”

Although Wasserman Schultz demurs, her husband says her eventual goal is to become speaker of the House. “She’s working on that and she doesn’t give up or lose,” he says. “She’s done a lot in four terms and plans to keep on going.”

How about Madame President?

“I’m sure she’d love it, but she’s Jewish, a woman, and liberal,” he says. “That won’t happen any time soon.”

Meanwhile, as Wasserman Schultz gains more clout and national face time, she will gather a lot of IOUs and continue her impressive climb though the ranks of the party. As she puts it, she will always be the last person in the room when they turn off the lights. “I’m someone who truly believes in not waking up the next day after working toward a goal and thinking, ‘Gosh, I shoulda, woulda, coulda,’” she says. “I want to make sure that everything has been done and that I have no feelings of regret about what I left on the table.”

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She has also written for The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.