Wasserman Schultz brings Jewish identity to top Democratic Party position

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Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s first day as a sophomore in the House of Representatives, on Jan. 8, 2007, was marked by a number of extraordinary achievements for a woman barely out of her first term.

Named to the Democratic caucus leadership. Named to the all-powerful Appropriations Committee. Named as a major fundraiser ($17 million) for the party’s breakthrough 2006 election. Named by a tabloid as one of the 50 most beautiful people on Capitol Hill.

And two weeks ago, President Barack Obama named Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), 44, to the most powerful party position, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. When officially elected, she will be the third woman to lead the DNC and the first in more than 15 years.

Jewish Democrats say Obama’s choice of a successor to former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (he is running for Senate) in the top party fundraising spot is a signal of Obama’s commitment to a loyal constituency: the Jews.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (right) with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (center) and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a Capitol Hill reception for Jewish American Heritage Month in 2009. photo/jta/jewish historical society of greater washington

“I guarantee you that her being a woman played a role in the choice, I guarantee you that her being from Florida played a role,” said David Harris, the president of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “But I also guarantee you that her being Jewish played a role.”

The question remains open of what role, if any, Wasserman Schultz’s Judaism will play as she leads the Democratic Party into the 2012 elections.

“She is so, so excited to be Jewish,” said Shelley Rood, who worked as a legislative assistant in Wasserman Schultz’s office and is now a senior legislative associate at the Jewish Federations of North America. “She really enjoys working with Jewish organizations because she believes their priorities for America are right on.”

Wasserman Schultz, who declined to be interviewed for this story, arrived at politics through Jewish activism, which has been a centerpiece of her career.

The same year Wasserman Schultz was running for her first legislative position, the Florida House in 1992, she joined the National Jewish Democratic Council as a staffer leading its Florida operation.

In 2004, after stints in both Florida houses, she made a run at Congress and won handily. She quickly was tapped by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to help push potential first-timers past the finish line in 2006. That year, Wasserman Schultz formed friendships with now Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–N.Y.), who won a House seat in upstate New York, and with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D–Ariz.), who won an Arizona seat.

That helped Democrats gain the House that year and won Wasserman Schultz the chief deputy whip job in her second term, and the plum spot on the Appropriations Committee. It also led to close friendships and regular lunches for the three relatively young female lawmakers.

When an assailant shot Giffords in the head in January, Wasserman Schultz and Gillibrand were among the first to fly to her bedside.

Giffords’ chief of staff, Pia Carusone, says that for Wasserman Schultz and Giffords, exploring their shared Judaism was critical.

“There are not that many women in office, and not so many Jewish women, so it has been a nice friendship,” Carusone said.

Wasserman Schultz — who in 2006 helped lead the way in getting May established as Jewish American Heritage Month — is seen as a team player. She was a strident leader in the 2008 primary campaign for Hillary Rodham Clinton, and easily shifted to Team Obama when Clinton withdrew.

Republicans deride her as a partisan. Hours after the announcement that she’d be the next party chair, the Republican Jewish Coalition issued a statement citing her connection with J Street to question her bona fides.

“In blindly conferring legitimacy on fringe groups like J Street, she has raised serious questions about her own credibility and judgment,” RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks said.

Wasserman Schultz has praised J Street a handful of times, and she had addressed the organization at least once.

Capitol Hill insiders dismissed the flap as RJC politicking — Brooks’ statement resulted in immediate praise for Wasserman Schultz from AIPAC and from the Jewish Federations of North America.

Off the record, Jewish leaders say Wasserman Schultz will ratchet up the pressure on the Jewish establishment to back Democratic initiatives. Eric Golub, a Jewish blogger for the conservative Washington Times, calls her the Democrats’ “Jew shrew” because of her partisanship.

Wasserman Schultz, who battled and defeated breast cancer, often can be seen walking around Capitol Hill, one of her three young children by her side.

“She’s a mother of young children, so she gets the balancing,” said Carol Brick Turin, the director of the Miami-area Jewish Community Relations Council.

She also remains loyal and available to friends from the earliest years of her career. When she attended a Chabad event recently, she picked out and warmly greeted Rabbi Aron Lieberman, a Fort Lauderdale Chabad director. As a 20-year-old staffer in Florida Rep. Peter Deutsch’s office, it had been her job to pick up Lieberman from the airport for the monthly classes Deutsch had with the rabbi.

The fact that she remembered Lieberman took aback the assembled rabbis, said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the director of American Friends of Lubavitch.

“She’s energetic, dynamic, aggressive and well respected even by those who might not agree with her on the policy level,” he said.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.