It was September 2014, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz was tumbling through yet another terrible news cycle. A couple of dozen Democrats had just unloaded a litany of mostly anonymous complaints about her chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in a mean, dishy Politico story; cable news pundits were salivating over her imminent demise. (“Has Debbie Wasserman Schultz become kryptonite for the Democratic Party?” an MSNBC segment pondered.)
She woke up early that next morning, headed to a Starbucks on Capitol Hill and bumped into an odd source of comfort: then-House speaker John A. Boehner.
The genial Republican, weary from internal discord within his own party, knew a thing or two about weathering attacks. He pulled the Florida congresswoman away from her staff and told her to hang in there.
And she did. For far, far longer than anyone expected.
Wasserman Schultz may have resigned relatively quickly Sunday after the release of hacked DNC emails that triggered questions about her leadership. But there was nothing quick about her term as party boss. She leaves the job after hanging on to it longer than any DNC chair in 50 years — this, despite a series of controversies and an aura of doom that have surrounded her through most of her five years in the job.
She was the ultimate Washington survivor. Until suddenly, she wasn’t.
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In an April interview on “The Daily Show,” Wasserman Schultz claimed to be comfortable with the role that had been, lately, evolving for her — that of a Democratic Party punching bag.
“The reality is, I have a job as national party chair that is one that requires a thick skin,” she said. “It requires me to be able to absorb the body blows so our candidates can stay above the fray.”
But absorbing the blows never meant turning the other cheek.
“Chuck, this must stop,” she wrote in May to “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd, in one of the leaked emails, after his MSNBC colleague Mika Brzezinski called for her to step down. She directed a staffer to contact MSNBC brass about the matter: “She must apologize.”
In the final hours before she resigned, Wasserman Schultz stubbornly fought against the attempt to push her out, Democrats familiar with the negotiations told The Washington Post, giving in only after President Obama called her. And relatively early in her command at the DNC, when the knives were first coming out, she didn’t hesitate to push back when publicly insulted.
In 2012, GOP operative Tim Miller armed himself with copies of a devastating report by Politico’s Glenn Thrush claiming that Obama advisers already regretted the decision to appoint Wasserman Schultz, and he stood outside an event where she was speaking.
“When she walked by, I handed one to her,” Miller said. “She didn’t love it.” Later, he learned that she called his Republican National Committee boss, Chairman Reince Priebus, to express her displeasure. Thick skin or not, this felt like a personal attack.
“There are a lot of times that I feel for her,” Priebus said earlier this month. Having watched a strongman hijack his party during his time at the RNC, he knows a little bit about what kind of year she’d been having. He said he has a friendly relationship with his counterpart and that they’d talked about getting together for dinner with their spouses after the election.
“We have similar experiences in some ways,” he continued. “It’s not easy to take the arrows and get hit in public.”
Elected to Congress in 2004 at age 38, Wasserman Schultz quickly developed a reputation as a rising star and a prodigious fundraiser. As a Jewish congresswoman from Florida — women, Jews and swing states are crucial touchstones in presidential politics — she seemed like an appealing fit for the job of DNC chair, when her predecessor, Timothy M. Kaine, stepped down in 2011 to run for Senate.
It’s hardly unusual for the chair of the DNC to be the target of criticism. The job description entails acting as both an antagonist to Republicans and as a rule-keeping schoolmarm for Democrats — qualities that aren’t going to win any popularity contests. But Wasserman Schultz’s rule was rockier than most.
In the past few years she was accused of: using DNC money to buy herself clothing, pitching donors to shell out to her own super PAC while on party business, and losing the ear of the president. More recently, she found herself on the wrong side of the Bernie Sanders revolution, when a series of awkward moves — limiting the number of debates, a public feud with a Sanders surrogate and an incident in which she compared Sandernistas to Trump supporters — prompted loud complaints from the Vermont senator and his voters that she was tipping the scales in favor of Hillary Clinton.
Through it all, Wasserman Schultz acquired an untold number of Twitter antagonists, her first primary opponent in her 11-year congressional career, and a deeply unflattering “Saturday Night Live” impersonation by Kate McKinnon, who depicted the congresswoman as stiff, sneering and foulmouthed.
Publicly she remained stone-faced about taking the hits — and despite a clamoring for her head, held steady atop the DNC. (Most chairs cycle out after two or four years; not since the mid-’60s, when Connecticut party boss John Moran Bailey hung on to the job for a roller-coaster seven years, has anyone exceeded Wasserman Schultz’s run.)
“When you’ve lived through breast cancer, it helps put the rest of this into perspective,” says Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), a friend who lives just a few blocks from Wasserman Schultz in Washington.
Bustos was a journalist in a past life and says she knows how “hit pieces” come together. During one of those troubling times, she gave Wasserman Schultz a book called “The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom” and pointed her to a passage she thought might be helpful:
“Agreement 2: Don’t Take Anything Personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality.”
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And all along, too, she has had her support system. Team DWS, they call themselves, and these friends and staffers have been quick to chafe at portrayals they see as unfair. They say she’s nothing like the public perception of her, that much of the criticism reeks of sexism. How often, for example, do men get accused of being “ambitious”?
A typical criticism that set off Team DWS: In November 2012, Wasserman Schultz deplaned at the Fort Lauderdale airport, where RNC Co-Chairman Sharon Day happened to see that a Broward County sheriff deputy, acting as her police escort, was carrying the DNC chair’s bags.
“I asked, ‘Is it appropriate for Broward County Sheriff’s officers to be carrying people’s luggage instead of protecting people at the airport,’ ” Day wrote on her Facebook wall, in a post that went viral. “I did not think it was appropriate.”
“That drove me crazy,” said one of Wasserman Schultz’s longtime staffers. “She needed a sheriff escort because she had been receiving threats. He was a gentleman who asked to take her bag and didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Trust me, she’s not the type of person to make other people carry her stuff.”
In all his years having worked for her, the staff member said, she asked him to carry her things once — and she had a good reason. Back in 2009 Wasserman Schultz underwent surgery for breast cancer. To keep her medical condition quiet, she held a purse up against her wound, with a post-surgical drainage bag hidden inside. On one of those days, without a free hand, she asked whether he might carry her briefing book.
This week was supposed to be a good one for Wasserman Schultz. She had had the privilege of spending four days in Cleveland, watching the Republican convention careen off the rails, while holding forth about the madness at media availabilities just blocks away. The Democratic convention in Philadelphia was supposed to be a coming-together blowout for a once-fractured party.
But then WikiLeaks messed the whole thing up.
Some of the 20,000 hacked emails gave her adversaries ammunition to dredge up old grudges. They also reinforced her reputation as a petty, ineffective boss. Need evidence that she favored Clinton over Sanders? Or that she tracked her news coverage a little too closely? Or that she felt the world revolved around her? Well, there are emails for that.
She used a personal email account with the address hrtsleeve
@gmail.com. She called Sanders’s campaign manager a “damn liar” and Trump a “sexist pig.”
“That’s a silly story,” she wrote to her communications director in late May, after Sanders said he would replace her as chair of the DNC after the election. “He isn’t going to be president.”
“Can you help me get 7 tickets to Hamilton?” she asked the finance director of the DNC.
On Monday morning, she attempted to muster some wry humor as she addressed a crowd she might have expected to be the friendliest she might find in Philadelphia — a breakfast gathering of the convention’s Florida delegation.
“There’s a little bit of interest in my being here, and I appreciate that interest.”
Some cheered her. Many others booed, loudly. But she carried on nonetheless with her speech, promising to work to get Clinton elected in November.
“I thank President Obama,” she said, “for the honor of serving as the chair of the Democratic National Committee.”