WASHINGTON — Nine days after undergoing a double mastectomy, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz flew home to South Florida to host a fundraiser for Democrats with special guest Nancy Pelosi.
No one knew about the cancer.
She wore a boxy green jacket that night in 2008 to disguise the drain strapped to her body and collecting fluid from her chest. Her black purse contained pain medication, which pumped through tubes she concealed with black pantyhose.
"I didn't want people to say, 'Oh, I can't ask Debbie to do that, because she's got breast cancer, she's going through all this stuff.' I wanted to control what I was ready for. I'm a give-me-the-ball type of person, and I always want the ball."
Wasserman Schultz, 44 and a mother of three, has brandished that sort of intensity since being elected to the Florida House in 1992. Now she has taken the national stage, picked by President Barack Obama to lead the Democratic National Committee.
Three months into the job, her vigorous defense of the president and withering criticisms of Republicans have pleased party activists who desired a stronger advocate. But the attacks have occasionally been misleading and betrayed Wasserman Schultz's own call for more civil discourse after the near-fatal shooting of her friend, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.
"Debbie Wasserman Schultz is the gift that seems to keep on giving," mock Republicans, who turned her stumbles into an Internet video parody of Saturday Night Live's Debbie Downer skit.
Still, Wasserman Schultz is where she wants to be, firmly clutching the ball. As election campaigning heats up, she will play an increasingly visible and vocal role in shaping the debate. And as Republicans try to undercut her arguments, they do so with a mix of respect and trepidation.
"Tenacity is a word that is more appropriate for her than anyone I've served with," said Tom Feeney, who was with her in the Legislature and Congress. "She is bright, she is indefatigable, and she is extremely persistent."
"I disagree with just about everything she says," said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, who has squared off with Wasserman Schultz in debate on the House floor and on television. "But she carries herself in a way that reflects her passion for her principles and her respect for people."
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If Sen. Marco Rubio is Florida's conservative star on the national level, Wasserman Schultz is his liberal equal: a young, skilled communicator with a compelling personal narrative.
Those qualities have led to talk that she could one day follow Pelosi into the speaker's office and made her an appealing pick for Obama. She is a proven fundraiser and comfortable on cable news shows, which she seems to be on daily, a fierce partisan with curly blond hair and a native New Yorker lilt to her voice.
It helped, too, that she is from Florida, a state crucial to the president's re-election effort.
"If you want to get something important done," Obama said on the afternoon in May she was elected chairwoman, "ask a busy woman."
On a recent day in Washington, Wasserman Schultz was up for a 7 a.m. practice of the congressional women's softball team, attended a fundraiser at a downtown office building then popped into an aide's car, picking at a plate of strawberries and kiwi, and drove to a nearby hotel to speak before the American Institute of CPAs.
She spotted a Starbucks in the lobby on her way in and when the speech was over, she hurriedly made it to the counter, ordering a grande mocha frappuccino. Wasserman Schultz is a coffee maniac and has an app on her phone to find Starbucks in any city.
Then she was off for the Capitol to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before addressing two dozen members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful lobbying group.
Tension was palpable; Obama had just proposed Israeli-Palestinian borders based on 1967 lines. Wasserman Schultz skipped the small talk, going straight for the issue and emphasizing that Obama called for land swaps agreed to by the two sides.
"I recognize there are some of you in this room that are never going to trust President Obama 100 percent when it comes to Israel. In looking around, I don't see anyone who would question my own credentials," said the lawmaker who passed legislation creating Jewish American Heritage Month. "It should not be lost on anyone that the president of the United States, when given a choice, chose a firmly committed pro-Israel Jew to chair the national party."
Wasserman Schultz, who is 5 feet 2, sat on a table in front of the room, her legs crossed and swinging slightly. She had defused the situation and when a buzzer went off, meaning House votes were near, the crowd stood in applause.
She ran down the hall in her heels and business suit, aides in tow, and jumped in an elevator.
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Florida's 20th Congressional District is safe territory for a liberal Democrat, even as the reliable bloc of older condo-dwelling Jewish transplants from New York has begun to fade. Wasserman Schultz has been able to focus on raising money for other Democrats and, by extension, climb the party ladder. She collected nearly $15 million in the 2006 cycle, behind only Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel among Democrats.
Pelosi, just installed as House speaker, rewarded her with a plum spot on the Appropriations Committee that would typically go to a senior member. Wasserman Schultz became chief deputy whip.
While showering one morning in November 2007, she discovered the lump in her right breast. In the coming months she would undergo seven surgeries; her ovaries were removed the day after the 2008 presidential election. All the while, Wasserman Schultz kept her schedule, telling only a small circle of people. She went public in 2009.
"She didn't want it to define her," said Stephen Bittel, a longtime friend from South Florida. She also did not want to hinder a growing role in the party, revealing a hypercompetitive side that has been a theme in her life.
Fresh out of the University of Florida, Wasserman Schultz decided to run for the seat being vacated in 1992 by state Rep. Peter Deutsch, for whom she worked as an aide. But five other Democrats were in line. She was told it was not her turn.
"I was determined to prove them wrong," she said.
Knocking on 25,000 doors that summer, she dropped enough weight that her husband began sending her out the door with chocolate milk shakes. At 26, she became the youngest woman elected to the state House at the time. She has won every election since, serving eight years in the Florida House, four in the state Senate.
Wasserman Schultz may be best known for her push to require safety measures around pools, responding to hundreds of child drownings. It faced heavy industry opposition and from Republicans. But she continued to work the issue year after year, making compromises to gain support, and in 2000, Gov. Jeb Bush signed it into law. (She got a similar law passed early in her congressional career.)
In 2004, Deutsch left Congress to run for U.S. Senate, and once again she followed in his footsteps, running for his vacated seat. In that race, her Republican opponent, also a woman, attacked her for trying to do too much. "Today women can do it all," went the ad, "just not at the same time."
Now Wasserman Schultz is one of the few members of Congress with young children — twin 12-year-olds, Jake and Rebecca, and a 7-year-old daughter, Shelby. The three or four days a week she is away from their Weston home, her husband, Steve, a community banker, handles parenting duties. Earlier this month, the family packed into an SUV, along with their four dogs and cat, and drove from Florida to their vacation home in New Hampshire, stopping in Washington to catch Fourth of July fireworks from the White House lawn.
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In late 2010, Wasserman Schultz hit a snag. Democrats lost control of the House in midterm elections driven by tension over Obama's health care plan and a nascent political force, the tea party.
She surrendered her appropriations seat to make way for Republicans, and Pelosi passed her over for the top spot on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a role she pushed for. "It was a big disappointment," said Deutsch. "She paid her dues."
A December POLITICO headline read: "Wasserman Schultz's rise stalls out."
Then Tim Kaine, head of the Democratic National Committee, announced he would run for U.S. Senate in Virginia. On the day she was voted in to replace him, Wasserman Schultz was showered with praise. Amid the celebration came a challenge from her rabbi to avoid talk that "demonizes" the opposition.
"This is a difficult challenge to maintain," Samuel Kieffer told Democrats packed into a Washington hotel.
Wasserman Schultz has struggled.
Long a sharp partisan, her new role has afforded her opportunity to spread the fire. She has blasted the proposed Republican Medicare overhaul as one to "throw you to the wolves" and said GOP efforts to cut short early voting were an attempt to "literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws."
When she called the GOP "anti-women" for trying to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, a group of Republicans signed a letter of rebuke, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami. But when asked about it, she refused to criticize her friend.
"In her role, Debbie will be a fierce defender of her party's position," Ros-Lehtinen said. "I expect nothing less from her because she is loyal and a true believer."
Civility, Wasserman Schultz said, is important. "But I'm not going to shrink back from strongly advocating what my constituents believe in. I try to use words that are going to grab people's attention but not words that are gratuitous or untrue. I'm trying to get people to pay attention to me and cut through the noise."
Time will tell if the position helps or hinders her future. She seems content with putting in the years in the House rather than seeking statewide office — say U.S. Senate or governor — where her liberal politics could be a drawback. Many think she could be a future speaker of the House.
"I'm 44 years old. I've been in Congress six years. Those are conversations for another day," she demurred.
She had little time to ponder the future anyway. It was Friday and she was headed to the airport to fly to Milwaukee to speak to Democrats. Then she was off to Portland, Ore., for another meeting Saturday, and after that, down to Los Angeles to catch a red eye to Orlando, where her son was playing in a baseball tournament. She was cheering him that Sunday morning.
Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @learyspt.