In a Life Filled With Firsts, One More
WESTON, Fla. — Open lunchboxes are sprawled on the kitchen counter. Four dogs dart in and out. And three children rummage through backpacks. With the predawn bedlam at its height, the harried mother asks: Do you have your baseball glove? What do you want for a snack? How about the form I have to sign?
Rebecca, 11, who like most of her peers has embraced the eye roll as a punctuation mark, announces she is wearing leopard-print flats to school.
“Why don’t we start with, ‘Mom, is it O.K. if I wear these shoes to school today?’ ” chides Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, in white sneakers and head-to-toe pink sweats, her mass of curly hair pulled back. “Choppity-chop, let’s go.”
In less than two weeks, Ms. Wasserman Schultz — mother, wife, Girl Scout leader, legislator, fund-raiser and House vote counter — will add another job to her monumentally orchestrated life. She will become the first woman elected to lead the Democratic National Committee, a role that requires grit, exaltation and inspiration. At 44, she will be the youngest committee leader in decades.
As the country races toward the 2012 presidential election, it will be her task to rally Democrats to give money and time, swatting away Republican barbs and defending President Obama at every turn. It is a job she is well prepared to handle, having served years on the House’s Democratic campaign committee.
Later that morning, in a nearby deli, Ms. Wasserman Schultz, now wearing a businesslike gray suit and pumps, said, “The timing is right for a retail politician.”
But the symbolism of her selection is not lost on her.
“It’s a big deal, a very big deal,” said Ms. Wasserman Schultz, whose toughness was admired by her colleagues even before she grappled with breast cancer in 2007. “My generation is significantly unrepresented in terms of public policy and decision making. As a woman today, it’s very different living through raising children and balancing work and family. It’s an opportunity to reach out to so many families. And women who work outside the family can say Democrats get it.”
“It doesn’t hurt that I’m from Florida,” she added. “It’s a huge priority.”
Ms. Wasserman Schultz is a New Yorker who graduated from the University of Florida and never left the state. In her Broward County district, which includes a sliver of Miami-Dade County, she is largely beloved. In 2010, she was re-elected to the House, where she has served since 2004, with 60 percent of the vote. Before that, she served 12 years in the State Legislature, becoming — at age 26 — the youngest woman elected to the Florida House.
At a recent town hall-style meeting at a senior center, where she talked about Medicare’s future and what she said was the irresponsibility of Republicans, the audience swarmed her.
“I think you’re a gutsy lady,” one man said. “I like your talking points. We need to stress what Obama has done.”
“They gave me a megaphone now and I’m going to use it,” she told him.
But not everyone in Florida is so enthusiastic about Ms. Wasserman Schultz. James Gleason, a possible opponent in 2012, said she would only increase the partisan comments in her new job and magnify the country’s polarization.
“I think to be an effective legislator, you have to come together with your own party but also work with the other side and not just be antagonistic,” said Mr. Gleason, a Republican business owner who lives in Coral Springs.
A Republican friend and colleague, Representative John Culberson of Texas, said Ms. Wasserman Schultz had always been congenial. But he, too, worried that the post may push her far from those values.
“I measure a person beginning with their heart, and she has always impressed me as having a good heart,” Mr. Culberson said. “It’s important that you never make any of this personal. None of our debate should be personal or exaggerated or strained.”
With her trademark curls, Ms. Wasserman Schultz has long been one of the ‘-est’ girls: youngest, smartest, funniest, toughest. Her Democratic colleagues extol her fund-raising prowess, her ease on television and her indefatigability, which is legendary among her colleagues.
Melissa Bean, a former Congressional Democrat who shared a town house in the capital with Ms. Wasserman Schultz and Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, said she came to Washington expecting a house full of slackers, at least compared with her business brethren in Chicago.
Ms. Bean said Ms. Wasserman Schultz would fall asleep with “her head on her laptop or on top of her briefing book. Not only does she not quit. She won’t even quit on herself.”
The congresswoman’s newest housemate, Frederica Wilson, who shared a house with her in Tallahassee more than a decade ago, said she mapped the route to the hospital because Ms. Wasserman Schultz was pregnant with twins and “her stomach was about 10 feet away from her body. But she never stopped, right up until the day she gave birth.”
When Ms. Wilson, a Democrat and former state legislator, arrived in Washington, after being elected to the House in 2010, Ms. Wasserman Schultz found out she had no place to live. Shortly after, she was ensconced in the basement of Ms. Maloney’s town house, dining on popcorn and pot pies with the women.
Then there was Ms. Wasserman Schultz’s slide into second base during the charity softball game she organizes every year. She broke her ankle because she had to get on base.
Ms. Wasserman Schultz’s take-charge instinct also kicked in after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2007. She told only her closest friends. Her children knew only that their mother was going to have surgery. Once she conquered the cancer, she told them the truth. She scheduled her operations for a double mastectomy during Congressional breaks.
“I didn’t want it to define me,” she says. “I didn’t want my name to be Debbie Wasserman Schultz who is currently battling breast cancer.”
Back home in her jumbled, playful house chockablock with the Seven Dwarves and other Disney characters, Ms. Wasserman Schultz plunges back into parent-teacher meetings and baseball games. Her children, like those of many working parents, are used to seeing the suitcase by the door. She tries never to miss milestones like birthdays, and managed a stint as Girl Scout leader. The three children — 11-year-old twins and a 7-year-old daughter — grumble on occasion. But they know her job brings them perks, like meeting President Obama and watching Miley Cyrus do a sound check.
Ms. Wasserman Schultz, though, gives credit to her husband, Steve Schultz, a community banker, for managing the household without a baby sitter. When she is home, they sit side by side on the couch watching separate TVs: he plugs headphones into his set to watch sports.
“Everybody has to make sacrifices for their jobs,” Mr. Schultz said. “Successful people are very busy. That’s where society is today.”
For her part, Ms. Wasserman Schultz says, “I promote that you don’t have to choose between work and family.” But, she adds, “I married a great guy.”