For Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, her party’s national convention might look like a bully pulpit to advance her own political career.
But the 45-year-old South Florida lawmaker must be careful not to go overboard—or even lean too close to that edge. She has been the subject of persistent rumblings in recent months that some Democrats have grown weary of her heavy-handed tone, complaining that she is too self-focused and ambitious.
“She looks out for No. 1—herself,” one top Democratic strategist asserts.
Talk of tensions, even with the White House, has somewhat subsided from earlier this year, but it seems settled as she enters the convention that Wasserman Schultz will not serve another term as head of the DNC—whether or not she helps President Obama win a second term.
Wasserman Schultz herself appears ready to move on. She will be seen occasionally behind the speaker’s rostrum at the convention, and she will also be a main presence at numerous caucus meetings, state delegation breakfasts, and on national TV as a top party spokeswoman. However, against this backdrop, she has already begun to reach out to colleagues for support in a potential bid for a top House leadership post next year, according to some House colleagues and top staffers.
Although Wasserman Schultz is not the chamber’s only Democrat engaging in such exploratory activity, she has a penchant for attracting attention. This week, she will likely try to tamp down any discussion about her own future. But some Democrats see her gunning for the highest party post if House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, 72, opts for retirement—a decision that the California Democrat may base on how well her party performs in the congressional elections.
For now, Wasserman Schultz insists that her focus is on serving her South Florida constituents and winning reelection to her House seat (she faces a second straight challenge from Republican Karen Harrington). She also pledges to concentrate “on helping President Obama and Democrats up and down the ticket get elected in November.”
A native New Yorker, Wasserman Schultz in 2004 became the first Jewish woman ever elected to a congressional seat from Florida. When she was tapped last year to lead the Democratic National Committee, it seemed like the latest milestone for a star destined to rise even higher. The mother of three is a telegenic, quick-witted breast-cancer survivor who is popular with women and Jewish voters.
But a top party strategist confirms, on condition of anonymity, the talk of a falling-out with the Obama team (although relations are said to be on the mend). Complaints ranged from perceptions of self-aggrandizement to annoyance over misstatements that turned into GOP talking points. (She compared voter-ID laws to Jim Crow.)
One House Democrat and admirer, however, says that Wasserman Schultz’s rise continues to be “meteoric” in his eyes and has only been strengthened by her hard work at the DNC; he declined to be named. Since assuming the remainder of Tim Kaine’s chairmanship, she has attended hundreds of events in most states. She has also made fundraising appearances for House and Senate campaigns, placed robo-calls, and sent out e-mail messages. Those are chits Wasserman Schultz can call in, if needed, in a bid for a House leadership post. Another House Democrat suggested that certain members might even prefer aggressive leaders with a degree of independence from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
But at this week’s convention, where Democratic unity will be tightly scripted, neither Wasserman Schultz nor the White House will be looking for displays of independence.