South Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who has basically earned nobility status among the state’s Democrats, seems certain to snag a 10th term in Congress this election. Her secret? A mastery of retail politics, honed over decades, that helped secure her political longevity, according to those who support her.
“She delivers and really works hard,” says Broward County Commissioner Beam Furr, a longtime supporter. “She is able to get people around the table to talk things over. She listens; she goes to a lot of community events. She has taken some hits over the years, but she has learned from her experiences. She relates well to people. She works well with other levels of government, like city commissions and state legislators. She is not one to rest on her laurels.”
The U.S. representative, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, is running for what is now Florida’s 25th Congressional District after this year’s political redistricting. She faces a Democratic primary challenge from accountant Robert Millwee and Republicans Carla Spalding and Rubin Young in the November general election. She has been in elected office since she was 26, winning a seat in the Florida House. That made her the youngest female lawmaker in the state's history at that time. She later moved to the state Senate, then Congress.
And what’s clear is that the Democratic base and power structure in her Broward district is in lock step behind her.
Ken Evans, state committeeman for the Broward County Democratic Party, says Wasserman Schultz “wins because she does things for the people and is a true Democrat. She is there to support women’s rights and gay rights and stands up for people. She is one of the few elected officials who walks her district and talks with the people. She goes to Democratic clubs. She is dedicated to her job.”
Bona fides: Bringing money back to her district and being a textbook Democrat
The 55-year-old Wasserman Schultz, a Long Island native, also is on the powerful Appropriations Committee under the current Democratic majority. She’s the No. 2 Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees water projects, the South Florida Sun Sentinel editorial board notes, helping get $265 million for the reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that replenishes Broward’s drinking water.
For that alone, “it would be self-defeating for Democrats to choose” Millwee, the newspaper’s editorial board said in its July endorsement. Policywise, she is a textbook Democrat, supporting more access to health care, protecting abortion rights, urging a reduction in gun violence and a lessening of racial and income inequality.
In 2016, Wasserman Schultz was endorsed by more than 50 South Florida and national labor unions, human rights, equality, environmental and women’s organizations. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, she issued a statement, “An extremist majority just turned women’s bodies into government property, forcing pregnancy onto millions of women who now face horrific medical, financial and emotional harm. It’s a repulsive, immoral decision that erodes women’s constitutional and human rights and shows just how dangerously out of step extremist Republicans and their judicial picks are with most Americans.”
She also led 36 Democrats from 12 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid in urging congressional leaders to close the Medicaid coverage gap in the forthcoming reconciliation package. “Closing the coverage gap could help lower health care costs by reducing uncompensated care, improving efficiency in our health systems, and reducing medical debt,” she said. “In states like Florida, (it) will save lives. It is unconscionable that people would rather forgo care than go to a doctor because they don’t want to live with overwhelming debt.”
That’s one reason Catherine Minnis, Area 11 leader for the Broward Democratic Party says to know Wasserman Schultz is to respect her. “I believe she understands what it means to connect to the community,” Minnis says. “She has not stayed in a bubble. She is very active in the local community. She is able to connect with the people and responds to the requests of the people. She holds herself and the community accountable.”
Her primary challenger believes in term limits
Broward Democratic State Committee Chairwoman Grace Carrington says she is “100% behind Debbie Wasserman Schultz,” explaining she “has always delivered for us and she is doing an amazing job.” On the other hand, she adds, “We don’t know Robert Millwee. We don’t know who he is. He has never come to our meetings or been involved in the local Democratic Party.”
Indeed, the 37-year-old Millwee is a newcomer to local politics. He says she needs to be replaced because she no longer represents younger or “regular” people. He also supports term limits for members of Congress.
“I want to be the face of the younger generation,” Millwee says. “Once people like Wasserman Schultz get into office they work to hold onto their power. People are sick and tired of her. We need new people in office. She has been able to raise a lot of money because her target voters are people who have money.”
Millwee said he’s concerned about how corporations are buying up neighborhoods and charging exorbitant rents. “Young people will be renters all their lives and they will be paying rent all their lives,” he adds. “Cities should not allow businesses to buy up large amounts of land so they can rent properties to people.”
Still, he has the highest of hills to climb to knock off Wasserman Schultz in Tuesday’s primary. Charles Zelden, a professor of history and political science at Nova Southeastern University in Broward County, calls Wasserman Schultz “the right politician for the right district,” an area where people go with what they know.
“She's personable, more or less. She brings home the bacon. She hasn't had really the strongest of opposition. In terms of her politics, she's liberal, but not too liberal, and you've got a lot of old school Democrats in her district. And she has the advantage of incumbency,” he says. "She's what the voters of the 25th are looking for."
David Volz has been a reporter for numerous community news publications throughout South Florida over the past two decades, as well as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and South Florida Business Journal. He covers city government, schools, sports, culture, faith groups and workplaces.