Civil war for Democrats? Wasserman Schultz vs. Sanders

The chair of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., is interviewed by Maria Bartiromo on the Fox Business Network in New York on Monday, March 21, 2016.
The chair of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., is interviewed by Maria Bartiromo on the Fox Business Network in New York on Monday, March 21, 2016. AP

Just as she wants to focus all of her energy on the other party, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is in the middle of a nasty brawl with one of her own party’s presidential candidates

The South Florida lawmaker, who chairs the Democratic National Committee, is openly fighting with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a clash that came to a head after a violent melee at a state Democratic Party meeting in Nevada over the weekend where Sanders supporters threw chairs and threatened state party officials, using vulgar sexist language at times.

Wasserman Schultz criticized Sanders’ response as insufficiently critical of his supporters. He and his campaign manager, in turn, are escalating complaints that Wasserman Schultz has used the party machinery to help her friend Hillary Clinton. All this comes at the very moment Wasserman Schultz had hoped Democrats would start to unify and turn their attention to the Republicans and Donald Trump.

The DNC chief again took to the airwaves Wednesday to defend herself from assertions made the previous day, by Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver, that she’s been an ongoing problem for Sanders’ White House bid.

“My response to that is #SMH,” Wasserman Schultz said, using the Twitter hashtag for “Shaking My Head.”

Wasserman Schultz – who many Sanders supporters think is covertly helping Clinton because she co-chaired the former first lady’s 2008 presidential bid and the two are close friends – criticized Sanders late Tuesday, saying he’d failed to adequately condemn disruptive behavior Saturday by some of his backers in Las Vegas.

“The Sanders campaign and Sen. Sanders himself should not only outright condemn that specific behavior, but they also need to take steps to prevent it and make sure that their supporters understand that the most important and correct way to respond to any frustration they have over the process is to be civil and orderly,” Wasserman Schultz told CNN.

The Broward County lawmaker cited local news reports that described Sanders backers throwing chairs and hurling insults over their claims that the delegate-selection process in Nevada had been stacked in Clinton’s favor. She also mentioned vulgar and violent threats directed toward Nevada Democratic Chairwoman Roberta Lange after her cellphone number and email address were published on social media, including crude references to female anatomy.

Lange said she had received more than 1,000 frightening messages, including death threats, some of which she made public. One voice message from a male caller said: “I think people like you should be hung in a public execution to show this world that we won’t stand for this sort of corruption.”

Another person sent her a text that read: “We know where you live . . . where your kids go to school/grand-kids. We have everything on you.”

Wasserman Schultz later criticized Sanders as having failed to denounce such behavior.

“That needs to be unequivocally condemned, and unfortunately it has not been unequivocally condemned,” she said.

Lange sent Wasserman Schultz and other state party heads a formal letter of protest against the disruptive behavior and explained why she had shut down her convention early. In the letter, she said some Sanders backers had a “penchant for extra-parliamentary behavior – indeed, actual violence – in place of democratic conduct in a convention setting.”

In a comment that incensed Sanders and his top aides, Wasserman Schultz compared the aggressive actions of his Las Vegas supporters to the violent behavior of some supporters of Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump at several of his election rallies.

“It is never OK for violence and intimidation to be the response to that frustration,” she said. “That’s what happens with the Trump campaign.”

A few hours later, at a California rally celebrating his Oregon primary win, Sanders fired back in words clearly aimed at the DNC chief.

“Let me also say a word to the leadership of the Democratic Party,” he said. “And that is that the Democratic Party is going to have to make a very, very profound and important decision.”

As the large, boisterous crowd booed at his mention of party leadership, Sanders added: “It can do the right thing and open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real social and economic change. . . . So I say to the leadership of the Democratic Party: Open the doors, let the people in!”

While Sanders did not mention Wasserman Schultz by name, his campaign manager did so in responding to her criticism of the senator.

“It’s not the DNC,” Weaver told CNN. “You know, by and large, people at the DNC have been very good to us. Debbie Wasserman Schultz really is the exception.”

He accused Wasserman Schultz of “throwing shade on the Sanders campaign from the very beginning.”

Mark Alderman, a senior Democratic operative who was on President Barack Obama’s 2008 national finance committee, said the close ties between Clinton and Wasserman Schultz were well known among party leaders but that the congresswoman was trying hard to be an honest broker as DNC chief.

“Does her preference leak into her actions?” Alderman told McClatchy on Wednesday. “Sure. That happens to all of us. But that doesn’t negate her intention to be fair and balanced.”

In a defiant statement issued before his late-night comments, Sanders said there had been “zero reports” of violence during his rallies and he backed up his Nevada supporters’ claims that the state party convention’s procedures were tilted against them. He dismissed as “nonsense” Lange’s claim that some of his supporters are prone to aggressive behavior.

“At the convention, the Democratic leadership used its power to prevent a fair and transparent process from taking place,” Sanders said in the statement.

While he broadly criticized “any and all forms of violence,” he repeated past claims that shots have been fired into his campaign office and a housing complex where one of his staffers lived “was broken into and ransacked.”

Sanders’ statement dismayed other senior party leaders. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada expressed disappointment. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California called on him to drop out of the White House race to avoid deepening the Democratic schism, an appeal the Vermonter flatly rejected late Tuesday.

The violence and vulgarity in Las Vegas raised fears that intraparty violence might disrupt the Democratic National Convention, to be held in Philadelphia in late July.

In her letter to Wasserman Schultz and other Democratic leaders, Lange warned that the “very dangerous atmosphere that ended in chaos and physical threats to fellow Democrats” in Nevada could repeat itself on a larger scale in Philadelphia.

James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose