Interview: Debbie Wasserman Schultz

The Florida congresswoman talks about her upbringing, women’s rights, and more.

by Danielle Cantor

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz addresses the audience at JWI's 2014 Women to Watch gala in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Michael Bennett Kress.)

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz addresses the audience at JWI's 2014 Women to Watch gala in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Michael Bennett Kress.)

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was raised in Long Island, but it was in Florida – where she went to college and ultimately put down new roots – that she first tested her political mettle. Wasserman Schultz served as president of the Student Senate at the University of Florida, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Political Science, and became, at age 26, the youngest female legislator in Florida history when she won a seat in Florida's House of Representatives. After eight years she moved on to the Florida State Senate, where she furthered her reputation as a champion for women’s rights and children’s safety. A U.S. Congresswoman since 2005 (she was sworn in using the Tanakh), Wasserman Schultz is pro-choice, pro–gun control and pro–gay rights. According to the 2008 Power Rankings, after just two years in office she was the 24th most powerful member of the House and 22nd most powerful Democratic representative. President Obama handpicked her in 2011 as chair of the Democratic National Committee – only the third female DNC chief in history and the first in over 15 years. In 2008, while maintaining her responsibilities as a congresswoman, she fought breast cancer – enduring seven surgeries throughout the year. The experience made her an even more outspoken proponent of early detection and the Affordable Care Act. Wasserman Schultz was the first Jewish congresswoman from Florida, and was responsible (along with Senator Arlen Specter) for establishing May as "Jewish American Heritage Month." Her new book, For the Next Generation: A Wake-Up Call to Solving Our Nation’s Problems, was published October 15 by St. Martin’s Press.

Tell me a little about your upbringing – what was the Jewish influence in your life, and what influenced your choice to make a career in public service?

DWS: I was raised in a secular Jewish household, but my parents always instilled in us Jewish values and pride – particularly around my very Jewish family dinner table. Today I’m more religious and observant than I was as a child; I belong to a synagogue and my older two children have been bar and bat mitzvahed. I was raised on the notion of tikkun olam, and the idea that, because we were fortunate, it was important for us to give back to our community and help make others’ lives better. As I grew older and was involved in community volunteering in high school and then in college, I veered pretty dramatically from wanting to be a veterinarian to changing my major to political science and entering public service. The way I describe it is that I decided to make tikkun olam a career, because it was such an important part of my upbringing and a value that was instilled in me as such a priority.

A lot of feminists worry that we’re not recruiting enough young women into leadership roles right now. What can we do to encourage their engagement?

DWS: That’s a big part of why I wrote For The Next Generation. Number one, women – especially mothers – are underrepresented in politics and in community leadership and in public service. What I found throughout my more than 20 years as an elected official is that when we have an opportunity to build consensus and get things done, it’s often women who are able to pull people together. The divisiveness that exists in Congress right now is so corrosive and detrimental to our kids’ futures. So I really think it’s important to focus on building that next generation of women leaders; to encourage young women – the way my parents told me that a little girl in America could grow up and be anything she wanted to be – and make sure that women feel like they can grab on to whatever professional goal they have and not have to sacrifice motherhood or marriage. The whole having-it-all battle is so intertwined with women’s decision-making on whether or not they’re going to take on leadership roles. It’s something we have to help women through. Employers have to establish policies that don’t force women to make choices between being good professionals and good parents, or being involved in the community and still making a commitment to their job. Our communities would be stronger if we had policies like that.

Who are some of the women in politics – and elsewhere – who’ve inspired you?

DWS: Both of my grandmothers were forerunners: My grandmother on my mother’s side was a graduate of Columbia pharmacy school and was a pharmacist in the 1940s, and my grandmother on my father’s side worked professionally with a serious amateur athlete, and was always very focused on making sure that I knew anything was possible if I set my mind to it. Professionally, I have always admired Hilary Clinton and considered her a role model. She was coming onto the national stage as I was elected to the Florida House of Representatives, and I think she’s been an incredible example for young women to be moms, be community-minded and focus on the next generation – making sure that we create policy that is going to improve the lives of the children who will be the most impacted by the policies we establish today.

Are you optimistic that Congress will pass some kind of effective gun legislation – at least on background checks?

DWS: It’s not looking very good right now. The overwhelming majority of the American people support commonsense gun safety laws; they believe we should have laws in place that prohibit people who shouldn’t have them from getting access to them. But we have some powerful special interest groups – particularly the NRA – willing to do whatever it takes to block those laws. That’s why involvement – by women in particular – is so important in these community organizations. My friend Gabby Giffords founded an organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, to make sure that grassroots support goes toe-to-toe with the NRA, and the majority of Americans who support gun safety laws have an outlet and a vehicle to express that and push their leaders to support those laws. Getting actively engaged in changing what we know needs to be changed is really important, because what’s not getting done right now, and the gridlock that exists is harming the next generation. I think the policies we adopt – and whether we’re successful – should really be measured by how our children are doing. And whether it’s gun safety or criminal justice laws or education or health care or immigration reform or anything else, we’re not doing right by our kids if we don’t take the will of the people and pass commonsense gun safety laws like Gabby’s been pushing for.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz is interviewed by Kristin van Ogtrop, managing editor of Real Simple, at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in October 2013. Photo by Danuta Otfinowski, via  Fortune Live Media, via Flickr.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz is interviewed by Kristin van Ogtrop, managing editor of Real Simple, at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in October 2013. Photo by Danuta Otfinowski, via Fortune Live Media, via Flickr.

How has your personal experience with breast cancer influenced your position on health care and the Affordable Care Act?

DWS: It’s definitely opened my eyes wider. As my parents have told me, if you don’t have your health you don’t have anything. That’s something that has driven my support for comprehensive health care reform, which was always a very high priority for me. But then when I found the lump in my breast doing a routine self-exam in the shower, out of the clear blue sky, and then was ultimately diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s like you get hit with an anvil.

Cancer is all-consuming. But the one thing that was such an incredible relief for me as a cancer survivor, and for other people as they’re diagnosed, is to know that the Affordable Care Act will prevent them from worrying about being dropped or denied coverage for a pre-existing condition. Even when you’re a survivor, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and the last thing a cancer survivor or cancer patient should have to worry about is fighting their insurance company to cover the services they need. I’ve talked to countless women, since I told my own story, who have had that battle; who’ve had to choose between the chemo or the radiation because they couldn’t afford the deductible and the co-pay on both. Now, that issue is off the table for them because they have to be covered.

Same with preventative care: We are now implementing a system that will let us focus on keeping people well and make sure they can get their mammogram and not have to put it off because they can’t afford the deductible or the co-pay. And we can make sure that everyone can afford to religiously get an annual wellness visit, to stay healthy and catch illness early. That’s one of the critical things that I already knew and was underscored for me with my own experience: Early detection is the key to survival. If something is discovered, it’s more likely to be discovered early if you can afford to go to the doctor for a regular checkup.

Where do you see the debate on women’s reproductive choice going in the future?

DWS: I think we’ll have to continue to fight hard to protect it. It’s under siege right now – the Republicans, in particular the Tea Party, relentlessly pursue Planned Parenthood, are passing laws all around the country that are horrendously invasive of women’s privacy, and want to inject government into personal health care decisions. It’s something we’re going to have to stay vigilant about. Women, thankfully, have even more rights to make their own choices now that Obamacare is law. For years we’ve had generations of women, particularly younger women, not realize that their rights are always at stake, and they were complacent. I think one thing that has occurred in the last couple of years, with the relentless pursuit by opponents of reproductive freedom, is that a lot of the complacency has been removed. It’s been a real wake-up call in the last two years, with the Tea Party activists going after women’s reproductive rights. Why is it important for American Jews to be engaged and informed on Israel’s security and prosperity? It’s so important that American Jews understand the importance of Israel; the importance of there being a democratic and Jewish state, a homeland, a haven… The way I can best describe it is how I felt when I first went to Israel, which was almost 20 years ago now on a trip for young Jewish leaders, almost all of us elected leaders: I was walking down the street one day in Jerusalem and I realized that the taxi driver was Jewish, the person who checked out my groceries was Jewish, everywhere I looked there were Jews from every walk of life. We are less than two percent of the population in America – even though obviously we enjoy a quality of life here that is almost completely without persecution or even discrimination. But the peace that it gave me, knowing that there is that Jewish homeland for us to protect, it really hit home for me. So I think it’s important that every generation of Jews understand how we have to protect the preserve the state of Israel.

How does Judaism come into play in your professional life?

DWS: It really affects my professional life every single day. Just the values: The importance of education, the importance of family, the notion of tikkun olam – and like I said, it was instilled so deeply in me that giving back to our community and repairing the world was such a critical part of our responsibility as a people, that I decided to commit my professional life to it. You have the notion of tzedakah, and making sure that we look out for one another. It affects every facet of what I do every day: When I go to bat for my constituents; when I stand up for people who have no voice. To me, every aspect of what I do is informed by my Jewish upbringing.

What are the top three messages you want women to take away from your book?

DWS: One is that it’s absolutely essential that we measure our success, when it comes to policy, by how our children are doing, and focus more on cooperation than partisanship. Two is that women – especially mothers – are underrepresented in the political process and in community leadership, and that we need to get more women engaged. Women need to look within and find a way to exercise a leadership role. And third, I wrote the book because I want people to get engaged – in making their own lives more meaningful, and making our country a better place – and the book gives them tools to do that. I give them the information, I lay out the problems, I offer what I think are the best solutions, and then I tell people, “Look – the rest is up to you.” From reading this book, you should not just set it down and say, “Okay, I’m better informed.” You should use the information that I’ve given you as a tool to make a difference and turn things around for the next generation. What happens next is up to us. 

(Originally published in winter 2013.)