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.