Politics

Feud between Wasserman Schultz and millionaire donor exposes Democratic fault lines over medical pot

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston on Friday denied  a published report that her office had offered this week to change her position on medical marijuana if a major Democratic donor recanted his withering criticism of her.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston on Friday denied a published report that her office had offered this week to change her position on medical marijuana if a major Democratic donor recanted his withering criticism of her.

Lingering hard feelings between the Democratic National Committee chairwoman and a major Florida political donor turned into an all-out public spat Friday over legalizing medical marijuana.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston denied a Politico story that her office had offered to drop her opposition to a medical-pot ballot initiative if Orlando trial attorney John Morgan stopped bashing the congresswoman in the press as an obstructionist. Morgan then produced text messages and emails, also reported by Politico, indicating that a Wasserman Schultz staffer had discussed a deal of some sort with a go-between political consultant.

Morgan capped the dispute with an email blast to supporters Friday afternoon accusing Wasserman Schultz of engaging in “B.S. politics in order to rehabilitate the damage she’s done to herself by being on the wrong side of the issue.”

“It's not support — it’s a quid pro quo and I won’t do it,” read the email signed by Morgan for United for Care, the pro-medical marijuana campaign.

A spokesman for Wasserman Schultz, who refuted Politico’s report to the Sun-Sentinel, office did not respond to requests Friday from the Miami Herald to interview her or her political and national finance director, Jason O’Malley, who served as her intermediary in trying to negotiate with Morgan. Political consultant Ben Pollara, who ran last year’s medical-pot ballot initiative, communicated with O’Malley on Morgan’s behalf. Pollara declined comment.

The squabble, which played out over a series of news reports online, marked an embarrassing — if not entirely surprising — episode for Florida’s dysfunctional Democrats, who have consistently struggled to recruit candidates and organize winning campaigns. It’s particularly troubling for Wasserman Schultz, a party standard-bearer, formidable fundraiser and one of the few elected Democrats who could consider a statewide campaign. She is said to be weighing a Senate run if Republican incumbent Marco Rubio mounts a presidential bid.

Morgan, who put $4 million of his own money into the unsuccessful 2014 medical-marijuana ballot initiative and plans to try again next year, warned he would oppose a potential Senate candidacy by Wasserman Schultz, who last year likened medical-pot dispensaries to prescription-drug “pill mills.” At the time, Morgan derided the congresswoman as “irrelevant.”

On Friday, a day after Politico published its two stories, Wasserman Schultz told the Sun-Sentinel that after medical-marijuana proponents suggested to Politico that they might be open to discussing the issue with her, O’Malley contacted Pollara to say the congresswoman felt tighter language being drafted for a potential 2016 referendum could ease some of her concerns.

“It was my attempt to make sure that we just don’t go through the same playbook that happened last fall,” Wasserman Schultz said. She called the suggestion that she would trade her position for Morgan’s support “outrageous.”

“I wouldn’t change my position in exchange for support under any circumstances — ever,” she said. “I stand on principle. I’m always very proud to stand in front of my constituents and explain when I have a difference of opinion with them.”

Last November’s ballot initiative drew support from nearly 58 percent of Florida voters, narrowly missing the 60-percent threshold required to adopt state constitutional amendments.

Morgan, the architect of Charlie Crist’s 2014 gubernatorial bid, told the Herald in an email from Hawaii that he received a clear message from Wasserman Schultz, relayed through O’Malley and Pollara.

“The request was for me to recant my statement to Politico in exchange for her supporting my amendment in 2016,” Morgan said.

After Morgan told Pollara he wasn’t interested, Pollara relayed the response to O’Malley — who in turn told Pollara he had advised the congresswoman the request “was not a good idea,” according to Morgan.

“She insisted according to Ben and Jason,” Morgan said. “The coverup is always a mistake.”

The Senate election is more than a year and a half away, but the tiff with Morgan has raised questions about Wasserman Schultz’s chances. Still, she has national name recognition and would likely be popular among Democratic primary voters, though perhaps struggle in a general election. Crist and Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter are also said to be mulling Senate runs — in Murphy’s case, regardless of Rubio’s plans.

The feud took the air out of a planned Friday morning conference call organized by Florida Democrats, who wanted to attack Rubio on the same day he was promoting his new policy book — American Dreams — in Miami. Reporters instead wanted to talk about Morgan-Wasserman Schultz affair.

“I’m just disappointed,” Party Chairwoman Allison Tant sighed, without taking sides. “That’s between the two of them.”

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