Like she's girding herself for battle, Debbie Wasserman Schultz takes a deep breath before she starts to speak.
As a one-time candidate and current congresswoman and chairperson, Wasserman Schultz has raised millions of dollars for Democrats. She's a breast-cancer survivor and mom of three, but never mind that. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is focused on her job. She's been a dogged defender of progressive values, devoted to that treasure of American politics — Main Street citizens. And no matter our toxic electoral moment, she is optimistic that she can win them over. "The direction that most Americans want to go is the way that Democrats have taken them," Wasserman Schultz tells me on the eve of back-to-back presidential debates this week. She points to widespread support for Planned Parenthood and the achievements of the Affordable Care Act. It matters to her that you and I understand whose policies have sparked almost 70 consecutive months of private-sector job growth and renewed attention to climate change and student loans.
"These are discussions that happen at every one of our debates," she stresses. "And you will not see them on the Republican agenda." But despite her obvious pride in them, it is the debates that have drawn the sharpest critiques of Wasserman Schultz. Her decision to schedule only six debates — many of which have fallen on weekends or over holidays — has rankled supporters of Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley. Claims that she favors Hillary Clinton have simmered for months, intensifying when the DNC briefly penalized Sanders for a data breach at his campaign by denying him access to critical voter information in December. Young progressives and pro-choice activists came down hard on the chairwoman this week when she told the New York Times Magazine, "Here's what I see: a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided."
Mattie Kahn: When you were just 22 years old, you worked for former congressman Peter Deutsch, and he persuaded you to run for his seat in the state legislature. You were the youngest female legislator in Florida history, which is crazy.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz: Pretty amazing.
MK: Pretty amazing, yes. You can take a minute to brag a little bit.
DWS: It was. I didn't even realize it while I was running. I had no idea. During the campaign, then–State Representative Deutsch pointed it out. At one point, I remember him saying, "Debbie, I think if you win, you're going to be the youngest woman ever elected." That shocked me, but there was no internet. It wasn't like I could research it. It turned out that that was the case.
MK: We talk a lot about how important it is to have female mentors. But sometimes we forget that men can be incredible mentors as well. Tell me a little bit about what it was like to have a mentor like him, especially in those first years on the job.
DWS: It was really important. I talk about the importance of mentors all the time. It can be really challenging, because you might know you need one and you'd like someone to take on that role, but it can be awkward to speak about it or ask for it. In my case, it kind of just happened by accident. When I was applying for jobs when I was in graduate school, I sent out 180 résumés. I sent 90 résumés to New York legislators and 90 résumés to Florida legislators.
I got five responses — five positive responses, three interviews, and one job. And the one job I got was with Peter Deutsch. When I interviewed with him, he didn't even have a job available. He had a legislative aide, but he was the type of person who always looked through the pile of résumés that randomly get sent to legislators all the time and would seek out young, hungry political types.
He saw my résumé; he called me and asked me to come down and interview. What I thought would just be a 30-minute conversation ended up being two hours. Those two hours — no exaggeration — were some of the most significant hours of mentorship that I experienced.
He just gave me lots of good advice just about, for example, things like human interaction, how important it is to listen rather than talk. As I sit here and talk your ear off! When you're seeking people's support, you want to ask their opinion, get their advice, make them feel important — not in a patronizing way, but in a real way. It's important to sit back and ask people questions about themselves. People like to talk about themselves. There's not a lot of opportunity that most people have to do that.
Two weeks later, ironically, his legislative aide decided to leave for another job, and he called me at home and said, "Debbie, I have an opening." He said, "The job is yours if you want it, but I need you to tell me tomorrow." I accepted the next day.
Three years later, he knew I wanted to run for office, and he was very focused on helping me position myself to be ready to seize an opportunity if there was one. He was very strategic and gave me advice. He called me at home and said, "Debbie, the last map I saw during redistricting — your house is in my district." My husband and I had just bought it. He said, "I'll find someone else to run my congressional race; you should run now." To have someone be thinking for you, several steps ahead of where you are in your life, and for it to matter to them, is important.
MK: I think there's a tendency to kind of ding women for planning like that, for planning ahead—
DWS: There's a tendency to ding women for everything that no man gets dinged for.
MK: But especially, I think, for that practical approach. For a man, that's just strategizing your career. And for a woman, that's power-hungry terrible. It's pretty incredible that there was this older man in your corner who said, "No, you can do this, you're prepared, and you're qualified, and you can go do that."
DWS: That's exactly what he did for me. When he called me to tell me that he thought I should run, I said, "Peter, how am I going to do that? I'm only 25 and I just bought our house. We just got married. That's crazy." He said, "Debbie. Look around the House of Representatives. Is there anybody that you think is doing a better job there than you would?" I said, to myself and to him, I said, "No. I think I'd do a really good job."
He said, "Then you have to run. Of course you have to run. This is your opportunity. These chances don't come along very often."
In profiles about me, it is labeled as a criticism that I'm ambitious or that I do things that benefit myself. It's as if no one in politics or in professional life ever does that. It's not like I've ever been accused of doing something to benefit myself at the expense of the organization that I have. It's just that if something benefits me too, that's not OK.
MK: Politics is a tough business, and people are inevitably going to be very loud about and very critical of anyone who's in it — sometimes correctly and sometimes incorrectly. Do you ever doubt yourself?
DWS: It's just part of the job. There is an avalanche of criticism, especially now, in politics. With the explosion of social media, you are exposed to criticism so much more than we were earlier in my career, where you got criticized in a newspaper or maybe on TV or maybe at an in-person town-hall meeting. But now, anyone with a keyboard can criticize you. If you dwell in the bowels of social media, then you could drown in it.
What's hard about it is when you have all this criticism constantly hurled at you, it is very easy to just put up a total wall and treat all criticism as unreasonable and unfair. It's not.
MK: There's been a lot of discussion about the Democratic debates in this election — when they are and whom they benefit. And that's been compounded by the recent news that Senator Sanders was denied access to his voter file a few weeks ago over a data breach at his campaign. How do you respond to disgruntled Democrats who accuse the DNC of bias and tell you "I'm so disappointed in this"?
DWS: Look, people are passionate about their candidates. I understand that people are passionate and that they may see something perfectly innocent as being sinister. The role of the national-party chair is to absorb those body blows. If they're going to come from all sides, better to have them absorbed by me than absorbed by our candidates — one of whom is going to be our nominee and, eventually, president of the United States. I'm going to get bumped and bruised along the way. It's just part of it. I get it. And I understand that because I was one of the national co-chairs for Hillary Clinton's campaign for 2008, that that would automatically make Bernie Sanders's people think that I'm in the tank for her.
I try to explain I don't have to be party chair. If I wanted to fully engage in the campaign, which I did in 2008, I could go and do that. I really think that the best way for me to make a difference in helping to elect a Democrat as the next president is for me to get the party ready and in a strong position to support our nominee and to try to neutrally manage this primary. I understand that people will see sinister things behind the debate-schedule format or about how the data-breach issue played out. They are incorrect, but I understand why that would be their perception. All I can do is assure them that I am doing my best to neutrally manage the Democratic primary and will continue to do that. I'm never going to make everyone happy.
MK: But when you look back on the past few months, is there any point at which you wish you'd done something differently or made a different choice?
DWS: No. I have been doing the best I can to make sure we have a debate schedule that allows for the candidates to have enough exposure to the voters in that format. It's time-consuming to participate in a debate and get ready and prepared and to come off the trail to do that. I get that Bernie Sanders's supporters are concerned that somehow this is going to hold their candidate back — the smaller number of debates. But their candidate is doing quite well with our debate schedule. That's because he has had, as all of our candidates have had, a variety of opportunities to build a network and a campaign and get the message out. It's my job to preserve that variety of opportunities. If you don't, then you have an explosion of debates like we had in 2008, where you had 26 debates, which everyone agreed was too many. There is no number that would have been satisfactory for some group of candidate's supporters.
MK: As chairwoman of the DNC and as a congresswoman, you manage a lot of responsibilities for a lot of different people. Do you ever stop to make time for yourself?
DWS: Two years ago, I — having had breast cancer and really thinking about the choices that I was making for myself personally — I decided to kind of do a 180 in how I treat my body and how I eat and what I put in it. I kind of randomly started cooking. Now I actually have an answer for the question "What do I do for myself?" I cook for fun, and it's become something I really enjoy doing.
Not only because I like to learn new ways to make sure that I can eat interesting things and eat in a healthy way, but also to be able to cook for my family and get my kids to start thinking about what they put in their bodies so that they do it way earlier than I did, and grow up thinking about the importance of nutrition and its impact on your health.
MK: It's a great picture — a totally stalwart feminist ending up back in the kitchen at 47.
DWS: I know. It really is. It's my true joy. I could barely boil water before. That's not an exaggeration. There was a time when we got a new stove in our house, and I had put a pot of water on the stove to boil. No one was home. After 30 minutes, it still wasn't boiling, and I called my husband and I said, "Honey, I think there's something wrong with the stove." And he said, "Deb, the stove hasn't been hooked up yet." We'd had the stove for three months at that point, because we were waiting for the gas to be installed, still hadn't happened yet. I cooked so little that it took three months to realize that the stove wasn't hooked up.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Mattie Kahn is a news writer and close reader of pantsuits at Elle.com. For more impassioned convictions, follow her @mattiekahn.