A week before the start of the Democratic National Convention, its chairwoman, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, strolled into the arena — of the opposing party’s presidential convention.
Heads turned. What’s she doing here, mouthed incredulous Republicans at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
But Wasserman Schultz, persona non grata at the GOP, wasn’t engaging in covert political ops. She was being escorted into one of CNN’s makeshift studios to do what she does best: aggressively deliver the Democratic Party line.
“We should never let Donald Trump anywhere near the White House,” she said in another CNN appearance later in the week.
Consider it a warm-up for the Democratic convention, which begins Monday in Philadelphia and which will mark the culmination of more than a year’s work for the Weston congresswoman.
For Hillary Clinton, the presumptive presidential nominee, the convention will feel like a coronation. For Wasserman Schultz, the target of devotees of Clinton rival Bernie Sanders, it will probably feel much different. The woman tasked with holding the national party together is one of the reasons some of them feel divided.
On Friday, the WikiLeaks website published a trove of more than 19,000 Democratic National Committee emails that detail the party’s rancorous relationship with Sanders’ campaign. Last month, Wasserman Schultz acknowledged a “serious” email breach, that people knowledgeable about the incident blamed on Russian hackers.
Sanders’ team maintained during the primary that the party favored Clinton. The emails show top DNC staffers considering whether to try to get reporters to write that Sanders’ campaign was a “mess” after its standoff with the party over a crucial list of Democratic voters. Another email, from an unidentified official named “Marshall,” questions whether Sanders, who is Jewish, believes in God.
She’s had my back. I want to make sure we have her back.
President Obama, about DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz
Wasserman Schultz herself sent an email to Chuck Todd, NBC News’ political director, after Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” said in May that Wasserman Schultz should “step down.” Wasserman Schultz’s email to Todd was titled, “Chuck, this must stop.”
Once Clinton secured the nomination, Sanders seemed intent on withholding his endorsement unless Clinton backed him on pushing Wasserman Schultz out of the DNC. But at a Coconut Grove fundraiser in June, President Barack Obama declared his support for the congresswoman — “She’s had my back. I want to make sure we have her back.” — and the clamor for Wasserman Schultz’s head died down. Sanders endorsed Clinton anyway.
Whether the leaked emails will revive the effort to dismiss Wasserman Schultz remains to be seen. When Clinton thanked her at a Florida International University rally Saturday, a heckler began shouting, “DNC leaks!” He was escorted out.
Even before the emails came out, Republican nominee Donald Trump had seized on dissatisfaction among Sanders supporters.
“They didn’t treat Bernie right,” Trump said Friday. “He ran a very, very good campaign. And Hillary’s people just swamped him. You’re looking at Deborah Wasserman Schultz. I’ll take [Republican National Committee Chairman] Reince Priebus over her any day in terms of competence. Forget it. . . . You see what she’s done to that party.”
Through it all, Wasserman Schultz has remained steadfast in her defense of the party, which she maintained stayed impartial throughout the primary. She’s brushed off questions about her future at the DNC’s helm and about discord among the party’s rank-and-file over her presence.
“You have to tune out that noise. I have a job to do that President Obama asked me to take on,” she told the Miami Herald in an interview before the emails leaked. “The head of any large organization like this is going to come out with some bruises.”
You have to tune out that noise. I have a job to do that President Obama asked me to take on.
DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz
She likes to note that she’s the party’s longest-serving chair. She helped retire the party’s substantial debt after the 2012 election. And she led the party when Obama won his second term.
This year, Wasserman Schultz boasts, the Republican Party trails her organization in fundraising. “We’re clearly out-organizing the Republicans,” she added.
More convention duties have fallen to her than in 2012, given that there is no incumbent president to set the agenda. Clinton’s campaign took over many responsibilities only after winning the primary, said Wasserman Schultz, who has attended every convention since 1996.
“I remember in the 2012 convention,” she said, “if I got three or four hours of sleep a night, it was a lot.”
Meantime, Wasserman Schultz is running for re-election for her House seat, for the first time facing a serious primary candidate: Nova Southeastern University law professor Tim Canova, who outraised her in the last quarter. He collected more than $1.7 million from April 1 to June 30, compared to Wasserman Schultz’s about $1.3 million. But she still has plenty more cash left to spend: $1.6 million to his $986,000.
Wasserman Schultz demurred when asked whether she would debate Canova, a political novice who has Sanders’ endorsement, ahead of the Aug. 30 primary.
“After the convention, I’m going to be working with the Clinton campaign to be a surrogate for them all across the country,” she said. “And then, of course, I’m going to come home and make sure that my constituents know the work that I’ve done on their behalf the last 12 years as a member of Congress.”
In addition to being a constant cable-news presence last week in Cleveland, Wasserman Schultz held daily news conferences with other party brass.
“This is a counter-convention. That’s exactly what we’ve termed it,” she told reporters Wednesday, at the DNC’s cramped conference room a few floors above a downtown Cleveland pub. “There’s just too much at stake,” she said, to give the other party a week of uncontested press coverage.
“Our convention will be unrecognizable to the one you are seeing play out this week,” she predicted, saying Democrats planned to send a more “positive” message than Trump, who repeatedly talked about “law and order.”
While the only living Republican president or nominee present in Cleveland was former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, Democrats will host President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and, according to Wasserman Schultz, maybe even former President Jimmy Carter, depending on his health. Former nominee John Kerry can’t participate in politics as secretary of state.
Back in Florida for Hillary Clinton’s campaign stops Friday and Saturday in Tampa and Miami, Wasserman Schultz mentioned people coming up to her in Cleveland.
“As I walked around the streets and invaded their space, I got a couple of strange looks. A few choice comments,” she said at FIU. “But Cleveland is a Democratic town, my friends. And one thing I can tell you: Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is, is going to deliver Ohio for Hillary Clinton.”
Someone in the audience hollered, “We love you!”
“I love you too, thank you so much,” Wasserman Schultz responded.
Then she pressed on, without losing sight of her job as chief Democratic attack dog against Trump.
When he accepted the Republican nomination, she said, Trump said that he “alone” could fix the country.
“A few in this room might be from countries of origin where you know something about dictators,” she said, aware of her Miami audience. Then she invoked Clinton’s slogan.
“I’ve got two words of our own for Donald,” she said. “We are ‘stronger together.’ ”
McClatchy correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.