Debbie Wasserman Schultz came to Congress at the age of 26, and over the past two decades, the Democratic representative from Florida has taken on a variety of challenges and roles. Professionally she's risen the ranks to become the chair of the Democratic National Committee, while personally she's become a mother of three and successfully defeated breast cancer. This month, the congresswoman is out with a new book, For the Next Generation, which outlines her progressive principles and the experiences that inform them.
Amid the turmoil in Washington DC this week, we spoke with her about the current state of politics in America. When we asked her if there was a bright spot in bipartisan relationships that might get drowned out in all the noise about the shutdown and debt ceiling, this is what she told us: "There are women members making an interparty effort to try to build some trust and work together." According to Wasserman Schultz, "women members only half-jokingly say, 'if there were more of us and we had an opportunity to knock out the differences we have and the government shutdown, we would get this done in a matter of hours.'"
Women Build Consensus
Based on Wasserman Schultz's experience, female lawmakers are better at building consensus and empathizing with their adversaries, which pays off in negotiations. She explained that often the women she works with want to set up win-win deals and make their opponents "feel like they got a piece of victory." She went on, "if we added more women’s voices and put them in more of a position of power, we would have the opportunity to solve our problems in a way that is not as divisive."
Putting Aside Even Friendly Competition
In Congress, one way female members managed to strike out partisan bickering is with the annual softball game. She explained, "there’s been a baseball game played for many years for charity by mostly the male members of congress, and the Republicans play against the Democrats." For the softball game, which raises money for cancer survivors, Wasserman Schultz and the game's other founders decided Republican and Democrat women would play on the same team. She said, "cancer is not a partisan issue."
Read on to find out about her breast cancer battle, if she'd ever run for president, and more.
Being More Than a Cancer Survivor
Wasserman Schultz would know something about cancer. In 2008, she successfully defeated breast cancer, and since then has done what she can to promote awareness. "Cancer is such an isolating experience," she explained, "everything else fades into the background when you get a cancer diagnosis." Wasserman Schultz believes that when women share their survival experiences, it can comfort others who are struggling. And she thinks high-profile women like Angelina Jolie, who opened up about her double mastectomy and BRCA gene, are helping women "pay a little closer attention to their health."
Despite her openness, she concedes that women need to make their own choices. In fact, the congresswoman chose not to disclose her breast cancer until she completed treatment. She had both personal and professional reasons. "Cancer is such a scary thing for little kids," said Wasserman Schultz, who decided not to tell her kids, then 4 and 9, until she finished treatment. "I didn’t want them to think they were going to lose their mom. When I knew I was going to be OK, I shared the story with them."
"And then professionally," she continued, "when someone’s ill, there are a lot of well-meaning people who make decisions about what you’re capable of doing for you rather than asking you." She wanted to decide what she could do and "be more than just cancer."
Why Your Relationship Is Important to Your Goals
Wasserman Schultz dedicated her book to her husband, writing: "To Saint Steve, who is the reason I truly 'have it all.'" So we asked her, what does having it all mean to you? "When I was growing up, my parents taught me to believe that a little girl growing up in America could be anything she wanted to be and that I could be an accomplished professional, as well as a mom," she told us. "In my entire life I never believed I had to choose one. I could do both well. So that’s my definition of having it all."
A big part of achieving that goal, however, is her husband. She hopes more parents of young boys will teach their sons that equal parenting is important and a given. She's been lucky to find that in her life: "My husband really believes that it’s not primarily my responsibility to care for my children. We both made a decision to have a family, and we both split the division of labor in our house." And they divide responsibilities in ways that make sense. He’s more of the carpool and after-school athletic parent, while she is more of the educational parent who handles the kids' school needs.
What's at Stake For This Generation
In her book, the congresswoman devotes an entire chapter to women's rights, which she says are much more important to today's young women. According to Wasserman Schultz, women today are concerned about equal pay for equal work, access to health care, reproductive choices, Planned Parenthood, and education. "The same sense of urgency was not felt by my generation," she admitted, because "we were the beneficiaries of the toil and the sweat of our mothers and grandmothers. And I think the generation right behind mine really has been awakened."
Wasserman Schultz is confident she'll witness a female president in her lifetime. "There are plenty of good potential women we’ve built in the Democratic party pipeline," she argues. And there's one particular female leader she'd like to see in the White House. "I was proud to be one of Hillary’s national cochairs in 2008." For Wasserman Schultz, Hillary is the example she holds up to her two daughters "to show them that they can achieve anything that they set their minds to."
So would she ever run? "You know, I’m focused on making sure I can do the best job I can for the 23rd congressional district, and running for reelection and electing Democrats for the DNC. Those are the goals I’ve got right in front of me right now."