Can a Sanders ‘Proxy’ Oust Debbie Wasserman Schultz?

(Photo: AP/CQ Roll Call/Tom Williams)

Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz descends the House steps at the Capitol on October 21, 2015.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz has not had a great last couple of months. The Florida Congress member and embattled Democratic National Committee Chair has been repeatedly criticized for leading the committee both ineffectively and with a heavy hand, and for an alleged bias toward Hillary Clinton that has made the party’s presidential debates few and far between—one reason why the Republican candidates have dominated the political discussion. The progressive wing of the party base is volubly getting fed up with her.

Now, if the increased calls for her to step down from her post as party head weren’t enough, Wasserman Schultz is also facing the prospect of a tough primary challenge from the left. Liberal economist and longtime Wall Street–reform advocate Tim Canova announced last week that he will challenge Wasserman Schultz in the August 30 primary in Florida’s 23rd Congressional District. Touting a platform that closely mirrors Bernie Sanders’s, Canova hopes that the energy Sanders has roused nationally could work to his advantage in the South Florida district. Given Wasserman Schultz’s prominence, the primary could turn into a referendum pitting the progressive wing of the Democratic Party against its establishment wing, in much the way the (successful) primary challenge by another economist, Dave Brat, against then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was a test of strength between the Republicans’ factions.

Over the years, says Canova, Wasserman Schultz has become less accountable to her district and more responsive to Wall Street. “She’s become such a corporate Democrat; she takes so much corporate money,” Canova says. “The way she talks the talk isn’t the way she walks the walk. That kind of unaccountable power needs to be challenged.”

When Canova announced that he was jumping into the primary late last week, Reddit and Twitter’s Bernie backers—who are still bitter about Wasserman Schultz’s retribution for the Sanders campaign’s alleged breach of Clinton voter data, as well as her opposition to legal marijuana—rallied online, fancying Canova as a Sanders proxy doing battle against a close Clinton ally.

Though Canova says that he hasn’t been in contact with the Sanders campaign, he certainly identifies as a Sanders-style progressive and has begun using the popular hashtag #FeelTheBern on his social-media accounts. In addition, he previously served on an advisory board, put together by Sanders, on Federal Reserve reform that included such liberal economics notables as Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz, and Jeffrey Sachs. (Full disclosure: Canova has previously written for The American Prospect.) Sanders’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Canova’s candidacy.

“What I have going for me are issues that are breaking my way and will break my way,” Canova says, citing his staunch opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a call to break up the big banks, and insistence on reducing the influence of money in politics.

Canova alleges that Wasserman Schultz has repeatedly made politically calculated votes that favor corporate interests. She was Florida’s only Democratic representative to vote in favor of giving the president fast-track authority on the TPP, which made the trade pact harder to defeat. Data from Maplight, which tracks campaign contributions, show that in recent years Wasserman Schultz has received $300,000 in from interest groups backing the trade deal, compared with less than $25,000 from opposing groups.

With 87 other Democrats, she also voted with House Republicans for a bill that would kill the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau’s ability to root out racial discrimination in auto loans. Canova also criticizes her votes on the omnibus spending bills in 2014 and 2015, because they gutted crucial aspects of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street–reform law and curtailed the executive branch’s ability to shine a light on political spending from dark-money groups. Most House Democrats supported the omnibus bills, however, as necessary compromises to keep the government funded.  

Wasserman Schultz’s votes have roused the ire of a number of Florida liberals. “We think that those types of candidates need to be challenged everywhere,” says Susan Smith, who heads the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida. “We’re losing members because we lack definition. We think it’s time for Democrats to act like Democrats.”

Wasserman Schultz’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment on Canova’s primary challenge.

Whether progressives’ distaste for the incumbent will have a substantial impact on her voter support is by no means certain. Her district, which includes parts of Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, is not just heavily Democratic terrain, but home to many retirees.

Daniel A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida and an expert on Florida politics, doesn’t think the district is Canova country. “I think what you have are a couple things that might make it look rosier than it might actually be to challenge her in the Democratic primary,” he says. Her troubles as DNC chair and the fact that her district has been reconfigured due to court orders may suggest some vulnerability. However, Smith points to the 2008 primary results in Wasserman Schultz’s old 20th Congressional District, which overlapped most of her new turf. In that year’s presidential primary, Hillary Clinton won an overwhelming 63 percent of the vote; runner-up Barack Obama garnered just 25 percent. 

“Her constituents may be left of center, but they’re not the folks who are frustrated with Hillary, or Obama, or for that matter Wasserman Schultz,” Smith says. “There’s no homegrown movement to displace her. It’s coming from the outside.” 

Florida political consultant Robin Rorapaugh echoes that sentiment. “Frankly, Clinton is going to win in this area,” says Rorapaugh, who is not involved with either candidate. “I don’t think the left wing of the Democratic Party of Florida is going to suddenly coalesce behind a challenger to [Wasserman Schultz].” Democrats in the area have supported her since her days in the Florida state senate, she says, and even as her national profile has grown, many say she’s done a good job of maintaining a strong presence with her constituents. In the largely upper-middle-class Miami suburbs that make up the 23rd District, Rorapaugh doesn’t foresee many Democratic voters inclined to abandon Wasserman Schultz for a challenger running on a Wall Street–reform plank.

Local progressives in South Florida, however, disagree. “We’re not as vocal or as loud as the Hillary folks and the establishment Democratic Party,” says Wendy Sejour, a progressive activist and president of Democracy For America’s Miami-Dade chapter. “We’ve always worked in the shadows because of Wasserman Schultz and her stranglehold on the party—particularly in South Florida.”

Finding a Democrat, and Democratic consultants, willing to take on the most powerful Democrat in the state—not to mention the DNC chair—has not been easy. Canova, who has never held public office, recalls how he tried to talk with a D.C. political consultant who specializes in campaigns against incumbents. When Canova told him that it was Wasserman Schultz he was planning on challenging, the consultant “couldn’t get off the phone quick enough.”

Still, Canova has had some initial success in getting his name out there and says he’s received more than 1,000 contributions since he announced late last week. His social media presence has been expanding rapidly. And as David Dayen reported for The New Republic, he’s already attracted outside fundraising assistance from the progressive Blue America PAC. That said, Canova will be up against the formidable fundraising prowess of Wasserman Schultz, who also enters the fray with a large base of loyal voters.

In many ways, Canova’s campaign is the first clear instance of a Sanders-Clinton-type battle playing out on a local scale in 2016. “It’s a surrogate campaign for the populist movement, and it strikes at the heart of the struggle,” Sejour says. “The frustration with the Democratic Party runs very deep. There has not been an outlet for that in quite a while. Now not only do we have Bernie, we have someone on the local level.”

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