By Edward-Isaac Dovere – Politico
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is in a behind-the-scenes struggle with the White House, congressional Democrats and Washington insiders who have lost confidence in her as both a unifying leader and reliable party spokesperson at a time when they need her most.
Long-simmering doubts about her have reached a peak after two recent public flubs: criticizing the White House’s handling of the border crisis and comparing the tea party to wife beaters.
The perception of critics is that Wasserman Schultz spends more energy tending to her own political ambitions than helping Democrats win. This includes using meetings with DNC donors to solicit contributions for her own PAC and campaign committee, traveling to uncompetitive districts to court House colleagues for her potential leadership bid and having DNC-paid staff focus on her personal political agenda.
She’s become a liability to the DNC, and even to her own prospects, critics say.
“I guess the best way to describe it is, it’s not that she’s losing a duel anywhere, it’s that she seems to keep shooting herself in the foot before she even gets the gun out of the holster,” said John Morgan, a major donor in Wasserman Schultz’s home state of Florida.
The stakes are high. Wasserman Schultz is a high-profile national figure who helped raise millions of dollars and served as a Democratic messenger to female voters during a presidential election in which Obama needed to exploit the gender gap to win, but November’s already difficult midterms are looming.
One example that sources point to as particularly troubling: Wasserman Schultz repeatedly trying to get the DNC to cover the costs of her wardrobe.
In 2012, Wasserman Schultz attempted to get the DNC to pay for her clothing at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, multiple sources say, but was blocked by staff in the committee’s Capitol Hill headquarters and at President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign headquarters in Chicago.
She asked again around Obama’s inauguration in 2013, pushing so hard that Obama senior adviser — and one-time Wasserman Schultz booster — Valerie Jarrett had to call her directly to get her to stop. (Jarrett said she does not recall that conversation.) One more time, according to independent sources with direct knowledge of the conversations, she tried again, asking for the DNC to buy clothing for the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Wasserman Schultz denies that she ever tried to get the DNC to pick up her clothing tab. “I think that would be a totally inappropriate use of DNC funds,” she said in a statement. “I never asked someone to do that for me, I would hope that no one would seek that on my behalf, and I’m not aware that anyone did.”
Tracie Pough, Wasserman Schultz’s chief of staff at the DNC and her congressional office, was also involved in making inquiries about buying the clothing, according to sources. Pough denies making, directing or being aware of any inquiries.
But sources with knowledge of the discussions say Wasserman Schultz’s efforts couldn’t have been clearer. “She felt firmly that it should happen,” said a then-DNC staffer of the clothing request. “Even after it was explained that it couldn’t, she remained indignant.”
This story is based on interviews with three dozen current and former DNC staffers, committee officers, elected officials, state party leaders and top Democratic operatives in Washington and across the country.
Many expect a nascent Clinton campaign will engineer her ouster. Hurt feelings go back to spring 2008, when while serving as a co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Wasserman Schultz secretly reached out to the Obama campaign to pledge her support once the primary was over, sources say.
Meanwhile, the Obama team was so serious about replacing her after 2012 that they found a replacement candidate to back before deciding against it, according to people familiar with those discussions.
Obama and Wasserman Schultz have rarely even talked since 2011. They don’t meet about strategy or messaging. They don’t talk much on the phone.
Instead, the DNC chairwoman stakes out the president of the United States at the end of photo lines at events and fundraisers.
“You need another picture, Debbie?” Obama tends to say, according to people who’ve been there for the encounters.
Chairing the DNC should be a political steppingstone — Ed Rendell, Terry McAuliffe and Tim Kaine all went on to bigger things, and even Howard Dean used the post to rehabilitate himself from the man who yelped his way out of a presidential campaign.
And without a doubt, the Florida congresswoman has had plenty of successes. She has overseen the integration of key elements of the Obama campaigns, including its voter file and data programs. After being left with $25 million in bills from the Obama campaign, the DNC enters the fall with the debt cleared and over $7 million on hand. She’s started new efforts to build relationships with labor and small business leaders and prioritized the DNC’s outreach to female voters.
“My tenure here is not about me,” Wasserman Schultz said in an interview with POLITICO at DNC headquarters. “I like to help build this party. That’s what I love and that’s what I focused on.”
She rejects the idea she is over-extended.
“I have always taken on a lot. It’s what I love to do. I don’t do anything halfway,” she said, dismissing any worries that she’s overextended. “In some cases, it’s sniping; in other cases people are worried about me. I have a lot of Jewish mothers out there that I think very kindly say, ‘My god, she’s doing so much.’ It’s OK.”
SPLIT WITH OBAMA
The White House is staring at two years of life under a GOP-controlled House and Senate. The DNC chair, however, isn’t involved in the strategy talks with the president.
They don’t want her there.
For even the occasional Obama briefing by the heads of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, she is not invited. That includes a key session on July 31, the last day the House was in town before the August recess, when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), DCCC Chair Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and DCCC executive director Kelly Ward sat on the couches in the Oval Office running through the political landscape for the president.
Wasserman Schultz described her relationship with the president as speaking to him on an “as-needed basis, whenever I have a need to talk to them or give them a sense of what’s going on, but also, as it happens, as we connect on the trail.” She declined to provide details of how often, where or when.
When Kaine was DNC chairman during the president’s first year in office, he had a monthly lunch with Obama on the calendar (although not all of the lunches actually occurred as planned). Wasserman Schultz demurred when asked if it would be fair to characterize her as speaking “regularly” with the president.
“The best way to describe it is: as often as we need,” she said.
According to multiple people familiar with the president, Obama’s opinion of Wasserman Schultz was sealed back in 2011. Shortly after becoming chairwoman, she pushed hard for a meeting with the president that she kicked off by complaining that she had been blocked from hiring the daughter of a donor — who’d been on staff in her congressional office — as a junior staffer to be the DNC’s Jewish community liaison.
Obama summed up his reaction to staff afterward: “Really?”
Asked about the relationship between the president and Wasserman Schultz, the White House issued a statement praising the chairwoman and DNC staff.
“The president’s foremost political goal is helping Democrats do well in the midterms — and Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is doing a great job in that effort,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. “The president is grateful for all of the hard work being done by the entire team at the DNC. He fully recognizes the value of their work, and that’s why he has worked so hard to support them.”
Last summer, Wasserman Schultz and the White House clashed again.
Wasserman Schultz resisted Obama circle favorites Marlon Marshall and Buffy Wicks replacing Patrick Gaspard as executive director. When Jarrett found out that Wasserman Schultz had had her daughter sit in on the interview with Wicks at the end of July 2013, she called to register her dismay, describing Wasserman Schultz’s behavior, according to people familiar with the conversation, as “completely unprofessional and rude.”
Shortly thereafter, the DNC chairwoman spoke at length to POLITICO about how she planned to leverage the donors she’d met as DNC chairwoman into fundraising to build chits for her own political future. Jarrett was infuriated and called Wasserman Schultz.
Jarrett had always been a defender, she reminded Wasserman Schultz, according to people familiar with the call, but now she delivered a clear message: She was disappointed by the narrative in the story the chairwoman herself had fed, and cautioned her to remember that Obama is head of the party.
Obama’s team came very close to replacing Wasserman Schultz after the 2012 race.
At the Charlotte convention, Wasserman Schultz’s DNC staffers assembled a collection of perks — entry to her skybox, access to the chairwoman’s lounge — for House members and candidates she was hoping to attract for her leadership run and DNC voting members she would need to retain her DNC post should Obama replace her. She also had her DNC staff explore and plot how she could remain chairwoman if Obama lost the race.
A DNC official said Wasserman Schultz denies she ever made or directed staff to make such inquiries in the event the president was going to lose, but sources say White House and Obama campaign staff were furious.
“She was trying to figure out what the protocol was,” said a DNC staffer at the time. “What was the exact length of her term, what would it take to run.”
After the election, Obama’s top political operatives — strategist David Plouffe, reelection campaign manager Jim Messina and then-DNC executive director Patrick Gaspard, now U.S. ambassador to South Africa — debated the decision of retaining her as DNC chair so intensely that there was already a replacement in mind: R.T. Rybak, the former mayor of Minneapolis and a DNC vice chairman.
But there was nervousness about the optics of Obama dropping a woman from the party leadership. Plus, the sense internally was that they had originally picked her largely to help win the women’s vote and avert problems with Jewish donors, and both had indeed happened, whatever the other problems.
The focus in Obama’s political orbit at that moment was on transforming the campaign apparatus into Organizing for America, a 501(c)4 nonprofit group led by Messina that would exist solely to back the White House agenda. The DNC got stuck with $25 million in leftover debt from the Obama campaign, while OFA started fresh and has raised $36 million of its own since, although with limited political and policy victories to brag about.
The decision to stick with Wasserman Schultz is, according to a person familiar with Obama’s thinking, part of his “benign neglect” of the DNC overall.
This year, Obama has taken a somewhat more active interest in the DNC, appearing at 20 fundraisers so far compared with only a handful previously, with two more planned in Washington this week and an “intimate dinner” event next month at Gwyneth Paltrow’s home in Los Angeles.
In mid-June, he attended two in one afternoon in New York, including the DNC LGBT Gala. Wasserman Schultz waited until the end of the photo line to swoop in.
“Mr. President,” she said, according to people familiar with the encounter. “I just want you to know, the DNC has retired its debt.”
Obama looked at her.
“Debbie, you think I don’t know?” he said. “I’m the president of the United States.”
FUTURE AMBITIONS AND DIVIDED LOYALTIES
Being DNC chair is a major political opportunity.
“Unless you do something or say something stupid — which Debbie hasn’t — unless you do something illegal— which Debbie hasn’t — it’s nothing but pluses for your career,” said Rendell, who served as DNC chairman between being mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania, and credits in part his television exposure, new donor connections and expanded relationships with elected officials he got.
But the knock on Wasserman Schultz isn’t that she’s taking advantage of these relationships but that she appears to be planning her personal political rise while also trying to lead the party.
According to multiple people who have been in the room for DNC donor meetings, Wasserman Schultz regularly finishes a pitch to donors by asking them to give money to the DNC and her leadership PAC, or her congressional committee, or both. There’s nothing illegal about this, but donors often grumble privately that this sends mixed messages about her priorities and why she’s interested in meeting with them.
“I usually don’t — hardly ever do I have a conversation with someone where I’m having to ask them for support for all three at the same time,” Wasserman Schultz said. “There are times when I have spoken to donors who are donors to me in my reelection, donors who give to the party, sure.”
DNC policy is not to accept donations from lobbyists. However, her own DWS PAC accepts lobbyist money. Wasserman Schultz says this has never been a problem. “DWS PAC is a separate entity,” she said, denying that the initials have any relation to her name, although her father used to be its treasurer and it’s run day-to-day by Jason O’Malley, whose salary is split between the DNC, DWS PAC and Wasserman Schultz’s congressional campaign committee. He works out of a cubicle in the finance department at DNC headquarters.
“It stands for Democrats Win Seats,” she said. “And that’s important. It stands for Democrats Win Seats. It is a political action committee that exists to elect Democrats.”
Anyone with any political sense who’s interested in running for House leadership positions keeps track of favors to and commitments from colleagues. Wasserman Schultz’s list, cataloging everything from fundraisers to flowers sent after a parent’s death, is kept by DNC staff. Some versions of the spreadsheet, according to people familiar with the document, lay it out very simply, with “The Plan” handwritten across the top. As one document notes up top, there are about 100 members “with more seniority than DWS.”
“They never tried to hide what they were doing. They were tracking what she had done for other members and how likely they were at the moment to support her in a leadership race,” said a former DNC staffer.
Wasserman Schultz has traveled to 99 cities in 37 states as of September, according to DNC figures, for everything from state and local party fundraisers to a press event in front of the George Washington Bridge last week to needle New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
What that accounting does not show is how many of those trips were, according to people familiar with the decisions, guided largely by Wasserman Schultz’s interest in appearing at events for very safe members of Congress whom she’s hoping to count on for a leadership bid or to pitch meetings for her PAC or stops on her book tour.
“We say the big ‘D’ is for Democratic,” one member joked to others at the House Democratic retreat on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in February, according to one of the members. “For her, the big ‘D’ is always for Debbie.”
“People know she works hard,” said another House colleague. “But there’s this sense that she only works hard for herself.”
Wasserman Schultz has brought in four senior staffers to the DNC, including, for four months in 2013, a ghostwriter for her book, “For the Next Generation.” All four are now on the DNC payroll full-time or split between her congressional office, PAC and congressional campaign committee.
Public relations firm SKDKnickerbocker also has a large contract with the DNC through which consultant Hilary Rosen works directly with Wasserman Schultz, though Rosen says she does so only as “a friend.”
“I spend time with the chair, but we think of it as outside of that piece,” Rosen said.
Many longtime DNC officials distance themselves from her leadership.
“Debbie is the leader of the DNC. She’s the chief spokesperson and, along with the staff, she manages the resources of the Democratic National Committee,” said vice chairwoman Donna Brazile, formerly Al Gore’s campaign manager. “As vice chair, I’m not involved in the day-to-day decisions, the budget or anything else.”
Even when there is a state Democrats can use her in, there have been problems.
In Milwaukee earlier this month for a women’s roundtable, Wasserman Schultz said that Gov. Scott Walker has given the “back of his hand” to women. “I know that is stark. I know that is direct. But that is reality,” she said. “What Republican tea party extremists like Scott Walker are doing is they are grabbing us by the hair and pulling us back.”
Walker’s campaign pounced, and it became a running segment on Fox News and even a Republican talking point in the governor’s race in Florida. His Democratic opponent, Mary Burke (who wasn’t at the event), quickly distanced herself from Wasserman Schultz’s remarks.
Wasserman Schultz explained to POLITICO that the comment was “the result of my very intense, passionate feelings about Scott Walker or any other tea party Republican whose policies have done harm to women, and that’s what I was trying to highlight. … In the heat of the moment, sometimes that’s going to happen, especially with as often as I have to be doing what I’m doing.”
Wisconsin is one of the few spots in the country where there’s an endangered Republican in blue territory — and Walker is someone the Democratic base locally and nationally, especially unions, would love to see gone or bruised significantly ahead of a possible 2016 White House run. That’s all prime territory for a DNC chair, especially with a female candidate for governor. But people say Wasserman Schultz would only be a liability if she returned.
“Her ineptitude during her last visit makes it impossible to go back before the election,” said a person familiar with the Burke campaign.
Women’s issues are central to Wasserman Schultz and one of her priorities at the DNC. Though there was a women’s group at the DNC before her — the Women’s Leadership Forum, which was co-founded by then-first lady Hillary Clinton— Wasserman Schultz sought to expand the work by starting a larger umbrella group called the Democratic Women’s Alliance.
“Ironically, women through the Women’s Leadership Forum were treated like an ATM. The Women’s Leadership Forum is exclusively a finance arm,” Wasserman Schultz said. “There was no institutionalized, organized outreach program for women.”
Thursday, the Women’s Leadership Forum will gather in Washington for its annual National Issues Conference, featuring a blockbuster guest list that includes both the president and first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, and, in her 2014 DNC event debut, Hillary Clinton.
Clinton will speak to the group in the morning and then head to New York for a separate DNC fundraiser, while Obama is expected to speak in the afternoon. Wasserman Schultz, though, is listed as another headliner for the New York event, though she’s hoping not to have to rush out on Obama to appear with Clinton.
SPLIT WITH CLINTON
Wasserman Schultz says she and Hillary Clinton have “a special relationship.”
Asked to explain what that entails, she said, “I’ll just leave it at that.”
As with the Obama White House, the DNC chairwoman’s relationship with the Clintons is fragile.
Back in 2008, Wasserman Schultz was a co-chair of Clinton’s presidential run and one of the campaign’s most active surrogates. In the rough final weeks of the primaries, when the Obama campaign was looking for every pressure point to force Clinton to quit, Wasserman Schultz gave them one.
Wasserman Schultz reached out to the Obama campaign to let them know she knew Clinton’s campaign was over, even though it would take a few more weeks. And she wanted them to know she was ready to be there for Obama as soon as it was. Through back channels, according to people connected to the discussions, Obama aides promptly let Clinton aides know that one of her last allies was backing away.
This has not been forgotten.
Through a spokesperson, Wasserman Schultz denies that she ever made a call herself to the Obama campaign but declined to address what her staff might have done. The spokesman said Wasserman Schultz’s first substantive contact with the Obama campaign came after Clinton dropped out.
Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said she has “the highest regard” for Wasserman Schultz, calling her “a tireless advocate for Democrats and Democratic values, a strong leader in the House and an effective chairwoman for the Democratic Party.”
Merrill did not get into the question of whether, should Clinton run, she would commit to keeping Wasserman Schultz as DNC chairwoman.
There’s ample reason to suggest this won’t happen. At some point Clinton will have to admit she’s running, and the Clintons have always been more interested in party politics than Obama has. Reshaping the DNC would be a natural early priority.
“When you think about their operation and the operation they like to run, she will not be running it,” said a Democratic strategist familiar with both the Clintons and the DNC. “Someone will clean that house.”
DNC Executive Director Amy Dacey — who’s won accolades in the White House and among the other Democratic campaign committees for her work to get the internal budget in order and increase coordination — predicted that Democrats in the midterms and the next presidential race will benefit from the DNC’s efforts, and from having Wasserman Schultz there.
“I know that she’s serving until ’16 and is involved in all the strategic conversations we’re having to build to that,” Dacey said. “Her time and devotion to the DNC is certainly there.”
Officially, Obama’s still the one who’ll get the say. The White House also did not address the question of keeping her as chairwoman past November.
Wasserman Schultz said she’s not going anywhere.
“I am focused on doing this job. I was elected to a four-year term. And I fully expect to be in this job through January 2017,” she said.
Speculation is already rampant that Stephanie Schriock, an experienced political operative who’s now the president of EMILY’s List — where she’s a big booster of Clinton’s candidacy in addition to being part of the working group of outside people supporting a run — would be a natural fit to come in as chairwoman. Through a spokesperson at EMILY’s List, Schriock said there have been no discussions and she was not aware of the possibility.
Other potential replacements include Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore and secretary of the DNC, and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, currently the co-chair of Clinton-supportive Priorities USA Action.
In April 2013, shortly after she left the State Department and was beginning to reconnect with old political friends and allies, Clinton invited Wasserman Schultz for coffee at her house near Embassy Row in Washington. Wasserman Schultz herself came with a pitch, asking Clinton to write the foreword to her own upcoming book.
Clinton considered the decision. It wasn’t personal, said a person familiar with the secretary’s feelings, but Clinton turns down 99 percent of book asks, particularly then, as she was writing her own.
Clinton said no.
Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2014/09/democrats-debbie-wasserman-schultz-111077.html#ixzz3DgOA13Gd