Wasserman Schultz says she has developed 'alligator skin' as DNC chair


McClatchy Newspapers

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz stopped by Tampa last week while Republicans were holding their convention. How could she resist?

It was in Florida, after all, said the congresswoman, who for the past 16 months has also headed up the Democratic National Committee, and who will figure prominently in her own party’s convention in Charlotte, N.C. this week.

"I was proud to roll out a little blue carpet for my friends in Tampa and welcome them to my home state," said Wasserman Schultz, whose district sits between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. "It was really important, because there was so much at stake in this election, to draw the really clear contrast and show voters the choice that they have."

Republicans just couldn’t ignore her. "The only hitch in an otherwise perfect week was the awful noise coming from the hotel room next door to mine," former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee told the crowd gathered Wednesday night at the GOP convention. "Turns out it was just Debbie Wasserman Schultz practicing her speech for the DNC in Charlotte next week. Bless her heart."

The job has given her "alligator skin," said Wasserman Schultz, 45, who campaigned across the country in 2008 for then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign even as she battled breast cancer.

Her polarizing style as one of President Barack Obama’s chief surrogates hasn’t been for everyone, though, including some Democrats. An electronic book on the election put out by Politico last month reported that some inside the Obama campaign questioned Wasserman Schultz’s effectiveness after a consultant’s focus group ranked her last in popularity among the surrogates stumping on the president’s behalf.

She also got into an on-air spat last month with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who challenged whether she was being truthful when she used selective pieces of a Los Angeles Times article to characterize Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s stance on abortion in a fundraising appeal. Conservative media outlets seized on both the spat and the Politico imbroglio as a sign of diminishing clout.

She shrugs it off — although not before calling the Politico book "anonymous baloney" and pointing out that she’s been a fixture of the Sunday talk shows nearly every week for the past two months. Getting a little dinged up in the rough-and-tumble political fray comes with the job the president asked her to do, Wasserman Schultz said.

"I signed up to be the head of the Democratic National Committee," she said. "It’s in the job description. I’m not supposed to be the neutral, bland, you-don’t know-where-she-stands surrogate. I’m the one that’s the political voice for the president. That’s something I’m incredibly proud of."

Her aim in Tampa, Wasserman Schultz said, was to talk about Obama’s accomplishments for the working class and for families, women, and immigrants.

"But also to talk about how harmful Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s politics would be for those same groups," she said. "That we shouldn’t go back to the failed policies of the past that nearly crashed our economy and got us into the worst economic crisis we’ve faced since the Depression."

In Charlotte, her role will be more as standard bearer and cheerleader for the Democratic base. And expect to hear plenty about what a second Obama administration would tackle, if he is re-elected, Wasserman Schultz said.

"Essentially their entire convention was an attack on President Obama rather than touting what Mitt Romney would do for this country," she said of Republicans.

The Democratic convention, she said, will focus on events and speakers "that will highlight the priorities that President Obama has talked about, which include making sure that if you work hard and play by the rules that you can have an opportunity to be successful."

"Which includes that we should make sure that we build an economy that is meant to last and that we build from the middle class out and the bottom up and not the top down," she said. "And that we make sure when it comes to the kind of investments we need to make and the deficit reduction we need to focus on, that we do those in a balanced way."

Beyond the talking points and the internal campaign squabbles, though there’s no question her time as DNC chairwoman has increased her national influence and stature. She’s no longer just a congresswoman from South Florida, a shift that Wasserman Schultz has said she believes actually makes her a better congresswoman from South Florida. .

"The important thing and the main reason I was comfortable saying yes -- aside from the fact that when the president asks you to do anything you say yes -- is that being on a broader stage has given me more reach, has given me more ability to impact and help my constituents," she said. "Because I’m more influential and more high profile now, it makes me a more effective representative for my constituents. And that’s what it’s all about. My first professional responsibility is being the representative from the 20th District."

Wasserman Schultz said she said she’s been staying grounded by spending as much time as possible with her three children, Rebecca, Jake and Shelby. That includes trying to make it to as many of their ball games in Weston when possible.

There’s one other thing. Like House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who’s well known for her penchant for dark chocolate, Wasserman Schultz has her own vice. It’s a daily Frappucino from Starbucks. The baristas at her local Starbucks in Weston Commons know it as her drink.

"If someone goes in and orders it for me, they actually say: ’Is that for Debbie?’" she said.

It might take more than one Frappucino a day to get through the next week. The congresswoman is booked solid, with a speaking role at the convention itself and dozens of speeches in front of various state delegations and caucuses.

And higher profile aside, Wasserman Schultz declines to speculate on what’s next. There’s been some speculation she might make a bid for Florida governor — another tough fight. Depending on the outcome of the election, there’s also likely a greater leadership role for her in the House of Representatives.

"For me next is hopefully being re-elected to represent the constituents of the 20th Congressional District of Florida," she said. "That’s what I’m focused on for the next 65 days, and re-electing Barack Obama to president of the United States. Past that, I haven’t even thought about it."

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