Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is under fire from liberal groups nationally and from progressive Democrats back home in Florida for her handling of the presidential campaign and the party’s finances.
Progressive groups are in full revolt, and Mrs. Wasserman Schultz saw her decision-making challenged this week when a New Hampshire newspaper and liberal cable news network MSNBC announced they would break the DNC’s stranglehold and host an unsanctioned Democratic presidential debate next week.
The five-term congresswoman has also drawn a primary challenge for the first time since being elected to the U.S. House, with Timothy Canova, a professor at Shepard Broad College of Law in Fort Lauderdale accusing her of abusing her leadership position at the DNC.
“Debbie Wasserman Schultz has failed in her position as DNC Chair,” Mr. Canova says on his campaign web site. “She has tipped the scales in favor of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and made sure virtually no one would see the primary debates. She has stood in the way of the progressive movement, and she has consistently put her own political interests ahead of the Democratic party.”
Installed by President Obama as chairwoman of the DNC in 2011, her tenure has been marked by successes — including Mr. Obama’s re-election in 2012 — and criticism, particularly intense in recent months, over how she’s handled the 2016 primary.
The DNC’s decision to sanction a mere six Democratic debates was seen by progressive groups as a way to clear a path for Mrs. Clinton to win the nomination.
The strategy may have backfired, however, with Mrs. Clinton now trailing in polling in New Hampshire and running in a dead heat with Sen. Bernard Sanders in Iowa.
Facing those numbers, Mrs. Clinton quickly jumped at the invite for next week’s New Hampshire debate. Mr. Sanders’ campaign relented Thursday and said he, too, will attend the debate, but also wants to see new debates added in March and April as well — further breaking with Mrs. Wasserman Schultz’s script.
Mrs. Wasserman Schultz had said the 2016 presidential debate schedule was never going to please everyone and that she doesn’t favor any one Democratic candidate running for president over another.
The Sanders campaign and Mrs. Wasserman Schultz have been at odds for some time, but it grew worse late last year when she banned his campaign’s access to the DNC voter data file. She said Mr. Sanders’ campaign abused a software error to sneak a peak at Mrs. Clinton’s data on the DNC server.
As a result, Mr. Sanders’ campaign sued the DNC in federal court saying it was trying to sabotage its campaign. Mrs. Wasserman Schultz relented and restored access to Mr. Sanders’ campaign, but he has yet to drop the lawsuit, keeping some legal leverage over the DNC.
“One clear way that Debbie Wasserman Schultz tipped her hand on the scale was the disagreement over the access of the Sanders campaign to their voter files — it clearly was an overreaction to deny the Sanders’ campaign fair treatment and that upset a good many people,” said David Swanson, the campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org, which is floating an online petition for her removal as DNC chair. That petition has garnered more than 32,000 signatures.
Some DNC members, including Alan Clendenin, the first vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party, is worried Mrs. Wasserman Schultz doesn’t have the skill set needed to bring both the progressive members of the party together with the more moderate members come November.
“We’re seeing a lot of young folks attracted to the Sanders campaign, and progressives being drawn into the Democratic Party,” said Mr. Clendenin. “Debbie lacked the ability to foresee this dynamic. I’m worried she won’t be able to provide the leadership needed to unify this more progressive group with the moderates post primary so we can ultimately win in November.”
Mr. Clendenin urged Mr. Obama in recent months to replace Mrs. Wasserman Schultz as DNC chair. Mrs. Wasserman Schultz supported Mr. Clendenin’s opponent when he sought the chairmanship of his state party.
On a nuts-and-bolts level, the DNC has struggled with fundraising this cycle. The latest numbers at the Center for Responsive Politics show the committee with $6.1 million cash on hand, but $6.5 million in debt.
By contrast the Republican National Committee had $18.3 million in cash, offset by just $1.8 million in debts.
Mr. Swanson and Mr. Canova, her primary challenger in Florida, say Mrs. Wasserman Schultz has used her position to further her own political agenda — one that leaves out progressive Democrats.
The latest evidence came this week when Mrs. Wasserman Schultz said there was no reason for former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for president as an independent. Mrs. Wasserman Schultz told MSNBC that the Democratic candidates are already talking about the billionaire businessman’s issues.
Mr. Swanson took issue with the response.
“She’s said Bloomberg doesn’t need to run because the Democrats are advancing the same platform as he is — and by the Democrats it’s clear who she means — and it’s not Senator Sanders,” he said.
Mr. Canova said that’s one reason he decided to run against her for congressional seat. He said he would offer a progressive alternative on issues like Wall Street reform, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and empowering the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to regulate payday lenders.
“A number of labor and progressive Democrats were approaching me to run, a lot of people were expressing dissatisfaction with her,” Mr. Canova said in an interview with the Washington Times. “When I looked at her record, I noticed how much money she’s been taking in from large corporations and how it’s apparently been influencing her votes in favor of Wall Street banks and private prisons. Time and again she has opposed Wall Street reform and has voted against the interests of her constituents.”
Mr. Canova said since launching his campaign earlier this month, he has received small dollar contributions from more than 4,000 individuals.
Mrs. Wasserman Schultz also faces calls to step down from CREDO activists, 80,000 of whom have signed a petition for her ouster after she accused young women of “complacency” in the fight for abortion rights in a New York Times Magazine interview.
CREDO activists have begun making calls to Mr. Obama and top Democratic leaders in Congress asking them to force Mrs. Wasserman Schultz’s departure.
Still, she has the backing of the White House and many notable union leaders including Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.
“Debbie Wasserman Schultz has been a dedicated leader and the President is grateful for her service,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. “The president is proud of all the hard work being done by the entire team at the DNC and that is why he has worked so hard to support them.”
And Ms. Weingarten told the Wall Street Journal that Mrs. Wasserman Schultz ensures that all voices are heard within the Democratic party: “Even when she disagrees with you, you can have a very tough conversation with her and she hears you out.”