An Interview with DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Jewish American Heritage Month was established in 2006 after the Congressional efforts of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and the late-Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), and it has been proclaimed each May since by Presidents Bush and Obama. This year marks the 10th annual JAHM and as May comes to an end, Natasha McKenzie, President of the College Democrats of America, spoke with Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, the Chair of the Democratic National Committee:

How do your Jewish values inform and influence how you approach the issues you address? 

Growing up, my parents taught me that tikkun olam – repairing the world – is a central tenet of our faith. As Jews and as active citizens, my parents helped me understand that it is our responsibility to help and advocate for others. 
Throughout my career in public service and lawmaking, I also sought to exemplify other Jewish values like tzedakah, or charity, and gemilut hasadim, the gift of loving kindness. Like many other American Jews compelled to stand up and speak out for the causes of justice, equality and righteousness in public policy debates, I found a natural home within the Democratic Party.

How did your involvement with the College Democrats shape your vision and passion for governmental activism?

It’s hard to believe that thirty years ago I was a college freshman at the University of Florida, wanting to be a veterinarian actually, when a friend recruited me to run for an open student senate seat. It was like I got hit by a lightning bolt – I realized how much I loved politics and public service…this platform to give voice to my views and the views of those I represented.

It was also fun! The strategy and work ethic necessary for success in politics was a stimulating challenge that proved quite addictive. So I eventually changed my major to political science, joined the College Democrats, and took internships with a city commissioner in Gainesville and a state legislator in my original home state of New York, and worked my way up to Vice President of the UF College Democrats and President of the Student Senate.
That transformation in my life was so exciting and so formative, and I’m forever grateful for my experiences in student government and with the College Democrats. 

Did any members of your family or any family values influence your decision to run for office?

When I was presented with the opportunity to run for the State House at just 25 years old, the support of my new husband and my parents was critical. I knew I wanted to run for office one day, but I hadn’t yet had my children and I always thought I’d run when I was in my 40s or 50s, you know, once I had had kids and raised them. But my parents had always instilled in me that I could do anything I wanted so long as I was willing to work hard and have a clear vision, and my husband realized early on just how passionate I was about being an advocate in government for women and families. So I got to work… making up in shoe leather what I lacked in financial resources. I knocked on 25,000 doors in that six-way Democratic primary, and won with 53% of the vote on the first ballot. I couldn’t have done it without Steve and his and my parents’ support, and I’m forever grateful to them for their continued support some 20-plus years later. 

Can you tell us more about the work of the DNC's faith-based outreach?

The DNC's Faith Outreach is housed within our Community Engagement Department, and is concentrating its 2015 efforts with our state parties & state-based allies as part of our overall effort to strengthen our work with the states. Inclusive within every constituent group relationship will be a faith component that will coordinate messaging and bolster our shared values as Democrats.

Can you talk about the GOP's tone deaf pandering to American Jews?

Sadly, the cynical goal of Republicans is to use distortions and fearmongering to turn Israel into a wedge issue and lure Jewish voters toward their party. They are making Israel a political football to try to win elections. 

It won’t work because the Democratic Party is the natural home of American Jews. Democrats’ values are embedded in our Judaism: of recognizing injustice and striving to improve our societies, of tikkun olam, of advocating for those who have no voice.

Recent polling confirms what those in our community already know.  Sixty percent of Jews in America identify with the Democratic Party while only about 30 percent identify as Republican or lean Republican. Further, the vast majority of Jews voted for President Obama in 2012.

American Jews are overwhelmingly Democrats because of our values, and yes, because of our deep connection to and support of the State of Israel.  But Democrats don’t just talk about tikkun olam, we actually practice it by working to enact policies that make the world a better place.

Jews overwhelmingly favor women’s rights, workers’ rights, and gay rights. We believe in separation of church and state.  We believe in immigration reform and providing the opportunity to others that our ancestors had when they arrived on America’s shores. And simply put, the Republican Party of today does not.

So they can do all the outreach they want to people like Sheldon Adelson. They believe that that counts as outreach to the Jewish community at large, but we know that it does not. I found it particularly amusing that Mr. Adelson essentially threw tens of millions into the trash can in 2012 trying to convince people to vote for Mitt Romney, and I wish him the same success as he begins a similar fool’s errand in 2016.