Interview: Debbie Wasserman Schultz
New York-born and bred Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s political star has been rising for nearly two decades—and she’s only 45. Last year, President Obama tapped the Florida congresswoman to chair the Democratic National Committee, giving her the lead role in the party’s campaign to retake the House of Representatives this year. Since 2005, she has represented Florida’s 20th congressional district (which includes parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties) in Washington. Prior to that, she had served for more than a decade in the Florida House and Senate.
Q. Why are you so supportive of President Obama’s positions regarding Israel?
A. Look at his incredible record. He proposed more than $3 billion in aid to Israel in a very difficult economy because he recognizes how important Israel’s security is. He authorized and supported $205 million for the Iron Dome missile defense system, which is effective against rocket attacks that have been occurring mercilessly against Israel. He authorized the sale of the bunker buster bombs, where President Bush had declined. I would argue he has been a better, more consistent friend to Israel than previous administrations.
Q. If that is so, why the sharp criticism from so many American Jews?
A. No one is happy with government right now. But polling continues to show overwhelming support for Democrats and President Obama in the Jewish community. There appears to be no danger that we are going to lose the Jewish vote. Republicans are doing their best to cut into this, saying anything—regardless of the facts—because in battleground states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio there are sizable Jewish populations.
Q. Israel has long enjoyed bipartisan support. Does that still exist?
A. There is just no daylight between both parties’ support for Israel. The Republicans…are unfortunately working overtime to create the perception that they are the more pro-Israel body.
Q. Is it true that Jews disproportionately make their political home in the Democratic Party?
A. We have 20 Jewish members in the House; 19 are Democrats and 1 is a Republican. I am the first Jewish woman to represent Florida in Congress. There are zero Jewish Republicans yet several Democrats in the Senate. The natural political home for Jewish voters in America is my party, due both to our traditional, strong support for Israel and all the other issues that matter to Jews.
Q. Why did you call on both parties to refrain from challenging each other over support for Israel?
A. What the Republicans are doing is dangerous. They are using Israel as a political football.… Israel’s ambassador [to the United States], Michael Oren, has said this. If there is any perception of daylight between the parties on support for Israel, that strengthens Israel’s enemies. The president rejects what some Republican candidates have been saying, that America should review all its foreign aid commitments from zero, making each country justify the support it receives.
Q. What message did Jewish voters in Queens and Brooklyn, New York, send when they elected the first Republican congressman there (replacing Anthony Weiner) in over 50 years?
A. There was no national message at all. You had a weak candidate on the Democratic side. You had a district that had been trending for a long time toward the Republican camp. Weiner only got 50 percent [of the vote] in his last election; the president only got 56 percent in this district [in 2008], the lowest percentage of the vote he received in any of the New York City districts.
Q. The first thing a visitor to your office sees is a beautiful mezuza. Tell us your Jewish story.
A. I grew up in a secular Jewish household on Long Island. We always celebrated…Passover and Hanukka and all those wonderful holidays with family around our table. It was around that same table that the notion of tikkun olam was instilled in us from an early age. Because our family [was] fortunate, it was our responsibility to use what resources and talents we had to help others.
Q. You have visited Israel many times. What memory stays with you from your first visit?
A. I was 27. It was 1995. I went with the American Jewish Committee in a young leadership program. I have always been a part of a large Jewish community, but you are always still aware that you are a minority. I was always aware I was different, and did experience some anti-Semitic incidents. So when I was walking down the street in Jerusalem it suddenly occurred to me that the bus driver is Jewish, the clerk at the supermarket is Jewish and the taxi driver is Jewish…. This helped me fully appreciate how important it is that we have the Jewish State of Israel—which is our homeland and our rightful place. We belong there and, God forbid, I remember thinking, if history repeated itself, there has to be a place for us to go.
Q. Did your experience with breast cancer change the way you see the world and your role in life?
A. I learned that I had breast cancer [in 2008] and was a BRCA gene carrier. Ashkenazi Jews are five times more likely to carry the BRCA gene and there is between a 40- to 80-percent chance of recurrence. I had already been in the fight against breast cancer when I passed legislation many years ago in Florida that prohibited drive-through surgeries, where some hospitals were kicking patients out almost immediately after their operations, never thinking that I would end up benefiting from that law years later.
Q. Why did you decide to have a double mastectomy?
A. Because I had early-stage breast cancer, they weren’t recommending a mastectomy. But once I knew I had the gene mutation I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life waiting for the other shoe to drop. I made it my mission to pass legislation so that my advocacy could fill a gap that existed. There were many high-risk populations either by race or ethnicity that needed information they didn’t have. I passed into legislation the Education and Awareness Act, which Hadassah was one of the first groups to endorse and support. Marla Gilson was just amazing and she was among the first advocates who helped me draft and pass the law.
Q. Looking ahead, what will be the news the morning after the November elections?
A. The headline will be “President Barack Obama Re-elected.” I am confident because he has been fighting so hard to get the economy turned around and create jobs, because he has clearly understood the long-term priorities of America, making sure we can out-compete, out-innovate and out-educate our competitors so we can remain on top.… He has taken us from bleeding out 750,000 jobs a month to…[more than] 20 straight months of private-sector job growth. The Republicans seem to be rooting for the economy to fail.
Q. And Capitol Hill after Election Day?
A. We have a real opportunity to take the House back and hold on to the Senate. Particularly with the House, the Republicans have allowed themselves to become a party that most Americans don’t recognize. They’ve allowed themselves to be taken over by the Tea Party extremists…. There’s no such thing as compromise; [they say] the way we are going to dig out of the troubles we’re in is by slashing and burning education and health care and research and hunger programs…while continuing to give back to the wealthiest Americans. That approach is contrary to all the values that the Jewish community stands for.
Q. How do you feel that a Jewish woman is heading the Democratic Party and a Jewish man, Eric Cantor, is one of the top Republican leaders in Congress?
A. I have a very good relationship with Eric. We appear on programs together as yin and yang. We don’t agree on very much, but it was a tremendous source of pride for me that the majority leader of the United States House of Representatives is a Jew.