Congresswoman Talks Politics And Parenting

Host Michel Martin interviews Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the incoming chair of the Democratic National Committee. The Florida Democrat will keep her seat in the House of Representatives and will discuss how she plans to juggle those duties with her role as mother of three.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we have a sad but inspiring story to tell. One young Marine veteran lost his fight with post-traumatic stress disorder just a few weeks ago. And now his mother and friends are doing what they can to try to save others. We'll hear how.

And we'll hear how technology is invading our privacy again because of a popular iPhone app that tracks the whereabouts of mobile devices. We'll talk about that.

MARTIN: Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. We caught up with her on the road in California. Thanks so much for joining us.

DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Thank you so much, Michel. Great to be with you.

MARTIN: I just want to clarify that the party has to vote to ratify the choice in a month's time. But you are the person selected for the post. So I do want to ask, is it congratulations or condolences?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Oh, no, it's absolutely congratulations. I'm really so thrilled and excited that the president has asked me take on this challenge to chair the Democratic National Committee. You know, we have a lot at stake in this country right now and there's a very clear difference between the two parties and I look forward talking about the direction that President Obama has been taking us in and continuing to fight for where we need to go.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask why you wanted this job? Why you wanted this job. You already wear lots of critical hats. You're on the House Judiciary Committee and the House Budget Committee, arguably the most critical body right now, heading into the budget debate - the ongoing budget debate. You're also on the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. You're the chief deputy whip for the House Democrats, which means you count votes for the caucus, certainly a critical job.

And you're taking on this job at a time when the president's, you know, approval ratings, I don't want to say are precarious, but are certainly reflecting the times in which we live. So, do you mind if I ask why did you want to do this job?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Oh no, not at all. Michel, I'm really a give-me-the-ball kind of person. And I, you know, really am thrilled that the coach put me in. I wanted to make sure that I could - to continue the sports analogy, help move the ball down the field. I have spent all my years in Congress, the last six years, working hard to make sure that we could elect Democrats around the country because my constituents in the 20th District of Florida believe in the Democratic Party's agenda. They want to see us working hard to get a handle on the budget deficit to create jobs and turn the economy around.

But they also want us to make sure that as the president said, we engage in shared sacrifice and not balance all the hurt on the backs of those who can least afford it. And make sure we are able to improve life for the middle class and working families. So the opportunity to help run the ball was just too good to pass up.

MARTIN: Here comes the annoying how are you going to do it all question, which I know you faced before. And the reason I'm bringing it up is that you've been asked before, you know, how you do it all, which is a question, of course, men are not generally asked.

I just want to play a short clip of you telling voters the story of your first run for Congress back in 2004 when your opponent criticized you for taking notes at a candidates forum with a crayon. Here it is.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: The only thing I have is a crayon.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible)

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: I always have crayons.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: So as she said, well, your opponent says that that's an example of the frazzled life that you now lead.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Demonstrative of the fact that you're not going to be able to do both jobs (unintelligible). You can say anything you want about me, but not question my quality as a parent. So, I told the reporter the only thing that that shows is that I didn't have a pen. And as a mom, I'm often without a pen, but I'm never without a crayon.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But what about it? I mean then again, there was this profile of you in The New York Times that recently published this profile capturing all these facets of your life. Now, some people think, you know what? This is what we need. We want to know how it really is done. On the other hand, Joanne Bamberger who writes PunditMom blog, she says that this just reinforces the harried working mom myth and perpetuates the new mom-ism, as she puts it, which links female politicians' competence with their child-bearing capacity to make them less threatening to the body politic.

And so I just want to ask, how do you feel about all that?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Well, I, throughout my career, have been asked questions like the one you're asking me now. And I do think that it's unfortunate that you're asking me, because I think if you were interviewing the new male chair, the incoming male chair of the Democratic National Committee, we wouldn't be, likely, having this conversation.

But I think it's incredibly important that moms of young children who are balancing work and family, who are struggling every single day to make it happen and give the best life they can for their children, see an example of someone who is a policymaker and someone who is fighting hard to make sure that we can bring about the change that we all want in this country, is up there doing it too.

So I think that I have an opportunity to be an example of, look, no one does it perfectly. I struggle every day also, and it's important to make sure that we have someone who understands the difficulties of balancing work and family so that we can get the policies right.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm speaking with the new leader of the Democratic National Committee, Florida Congresswoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. There's another balancing act that has nothing to do with your private life. As a Democratic Party chair, you are expected to carry the party's message, particularly challenging the Republican message. How do you prevent that from damaging the relationships that you have in the House where you are also expected to, you know, work across party lines to get things done?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Well, that's a great question. I have always prided myself on really being able to build individual relationships with my Republican colleagues. I spent 12 years in the Florida legislature, eight of those years in the minority, now going on four years, what will be four years in the Congress out of my, and eight at the end of this term in the minority in Congress.

And, you know, I've been able to be successful even while being a fierce partisan who stands up for what my party's agenda means for Americans. And I think it's really, at the end of the day it's about being a nice person. It's about making sure that you look for people who, you know, you may not agree with on the other side of the aisle all the time. But everybody can find some common ground. And so that's how I've always reached across the aisle, been able to find Republican colleagues to work with me and I expect that to continue.

MARTIN: What are your priorities as party chair?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Well, my number one priority is to help re-elect President Obama to a second term. And to make sure that we can take the 25 seats back that will return the Democrats the majority in the House of Representatives and hold the Senate. Those are - that's the three-legged stool. But, you know, our main driver will be re-electing President Obama.

MARTIN: Why do you think that his poll numbers are as - what's the word I'm looking for - variable as they seem to be? He's sort of been hovering around 46 percent. In a recent New York Times CBS News poll from about a week ago, he's around 46 percent. That's about where he's been hovering for some time. And also voters seem to say that they are skeptical about his ability to turn around the economy, which has been a democratic strength in recent years. What do you make of that?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Well, I think that at this point this far out from the election you can't much thoughts in polls. President's approval ratings, whether they're Republican or Democrat, fluctuate, you know, like the wind blows. And I think President Obama has inherited a mass of tough assignments that he's handled very well. You know, let's remember, he's taken us from bleeding 750,000-plus jobs a month the month before he was inaugurated to now, fast forward two-and- a-half years later, and you know, the unemployment rate has dropped to 8.8 percent. We've still got a long way to go.

But 13 straight months of job growth in the private sector, 230,000-plus jobs added to the private sector just last month alone. So you know, we are pushing hard to turn this economy around. We'd like the Republicans to join us in that being a priority and not spend a tremendous amount of time, which they seem to be obsessed with, eroding the safety net from our senior citizens and yanking out the policies that we put in place in the last couple of years. They need to drop their obsession and join us in creating jobs.

MARTIN: Is that a good message, though? For those who said, look, I still need a job, to say it would be worse if I weren't here. Does that work?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Oh, we're not saying it would be worse if I weren't here. We're saying that we are on the road to recovery and we need to continue the policies that President Obama and the previously Democratic Congress had put in place so that we cannot short circuit that recovery. I don't - we're not making the case it would've been worse. We're making the case - it's gotten better and it can get even better unless we go in the direction that the Republicans want to go, which is to go back to providing tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans exclusively and ignoring the middle class and working families.

Now they've proposed to end Medicare as we know it. I mean, we've gotten a little glimpse in the last few months of what the Republicans really want to accomplish, and that's implement an extremely radical social agenda. Roll back the policies that have been put in place that make sure that every American can get access to quality, affordable health care and, unbelievably, make sure that we can give even more tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class and our seniors. That's just unacceptable and I think the American people will have a very clear choice next November, in the direction that they want to go.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go and we have about a minute and a half left, I think one of the other things that's been attractive to the party about - in your profile, among the other attributes that we mentioned, is that you're from Florida.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: I am from Florida.

MARTIN: You are from Florida. Always up - it's been up for grabs in recent years and it's a very important swing state. So I wanted to ask, what's your plan for keeping Florida in the Democratic column in 2012? And do you think you can do it?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: I do think we can do it and, you know, I'm proud to represent my constituents in the 20th District in Florida and they're always my number one priority professionally. And we're going to work hard just like we did in 2008 to talk to Floridians about our accomplishments. Floridians care about getting our economy turned around and creating jobs, more so than - because our pace of recovery has not been quite as quick.

We're going to be able to talk about those priorities to Floridians. We're going to run a robust grassroots campaign. We have 800,000 more registered Democrats in Florida than Republicans. And we're going to get a newly redrawn congressional and legislative map that's going to balance out, thanks to our voters changing the constitution in Florida this year so that we can fairly draw legislative and congressional districts. We're going to make sure that we help drive the president back to the White House in November 2012.

MARTIN: I've been speaking with the incoming chair of the Democratic National Committee, Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. We caught up with her on the road in California. Congresswoman, thank you so much for joining us - or madam chair.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Thanks for joining us once again.

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