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Young Congresswoman making her mark in Washington, D.C.

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Knight Ridder Newspapers


WASHINGTON - One Capitol Hill newspaper gushed over the new South Florida lawmaker taking her son to a basketball game and the Library of Congress. A think tank recently named her one of 24 rising stars in American government. A national magazine writer reportedly described her as "hot."

And so continues the political fairy tale of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the youngest woman elected to the Florida Legislature and now the state's first Jewish congresswoman, who in nearly 10 months in Washington has made a Cinderella-worthy impression.

''I believe without any equivocation that she's the most recognizable freshman in Washington,'' Republican Rep. Mark Foley said of his Democratic colleague. ``She's spoken more on the floor and taken command of the issues more than any other new member who comes to mind.''

While her moxie during debates over Terri Schiavo and Hurricane Katrina has earned kudos, it has also gotten the 39-year-old rookie into some trouble. She has rankled the longest-serving and most powerful congressman from South Florida, Republican Clay Shaw, by openly supporting his Democratic challenger.

Shaw's staff said he tried to welcome her to the Capitol by offering advice and temporary office space and was upset to learn that she was helping state Sen. Ron Klein raise money and meet party leaders.

''For decades, the Broward congressional delegation has worked hand-in-hand on issues of concern regardless of party,'' said Shaw's chief of staff, Eric Eikenberg. ``It's unfortunate that that unity is now broken.''

Shaw has tried to enforce unity in Florida's congressional delegation even beyond his own campaign. Foley, of Palm Beach County, said Shaw berated him in 2002 for helping to defeat a Democratic incumbent from Central Florida.

As a liberal, first-year lawmaker from the minority party, Wasserman Schultz can't get anything done without a hand from senior Republicans like Shaw.

''I think she's taking a gamble,'' said Rep. Tom Feeney, a Florida Republican who served with Wasserman Schultz in the state Legislature. ``She disagrees with the Republican agenda and doesn't care if she pays a price in terms of legislation or projects. ... If the Democrats win back Congress she will have clout for standing up for their issues, but if they stay in the minority, she's going to have trouble with the people she's offended who won't go out of their way for her.''

Wasserman Schultz served with Klein in the state Legislature for 12 years, and they are close friends. She was tapped by Democratic leaders to help with recruitment and said she could not stay out of a competitive congressional race.

''It's not good for my relationship with Clay Shaw, but Democrats can't afford to leave a seat like that uncontested,'' she said.

In June 2004, facing an easy November election, she gave $100,000 of her campaign money to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the first six-digit gift to that organization from a nonincumbent candidate. Wasserman Schultz, who represents much of south and central Broward and parts of northeast Miami-Dade, was the only first-year lawmaker asked to serve on the Democratic whip team.

Wasserman Schultz also has joined the 30-Something Working Group, a handful of young Democrats who reserve one hour on the floor once a week to expound on issues such as Social Security and the federal deficit. The group, co-chaired by Rep. Kendrick Meek, of Florida, resembles an after-school debate club of overachieving social studies geeks. Wasserman Schultz's audience often consists only of the group's co-chairmen and the C-Span cameras, but ''the gentlewoman from Florida'' thinks the colloquies help get their party's message out.

Most recently, the discussions have focused on the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. Wasserman Schultz is pushing the beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse Floridians for property damage just like victims in the New Orleans area. She recently succeeded in passing an amendment aimed at encouraging states to confine violent sexual predators to treatment centers after completing their sentences.

In March, when Republican leaders were poised to intervene in the family dispute over terminally ill Terri Schiavo, Wasserman Schultz and Democratic Rep. Jim Davis of Florida demanded a public debate. Her remarks in several televised appearances and on the floor demonstrate her skill at making the political personal. ''It literally rips the hinges off the door of every family home in America and allows Congress to insert ourselves into any family dispute that we don't agree with,'' she said during a coveted spot on NBC's "Today."

A press aide invited a Miami Herald reporter to her kid's Brownies troop meeting, making it hard not to mention her role as mother to 6-year-old twins Jake and Rebecca and 2-year-old Shelby. Wasserman Schultz serves as the troop's co-leader, a fact that would drive more than one time-strapped, guilt-ridden mother to pelt her with Thin Mints. (She also took her toddler to ''Mommy and Me'' class that day while Congress was in recess.)

''How do you do it?'' voters repeatedly ask her, more frequently than they inquire about the latest political scandal. She and husband Steve Schultz, a banker, live in a two-story home in a gated Weston, Fla., neighborhood. Their children attend the private Sagemont School. After the Brownies meeting, she stopped at home to trade a denim dress for a pants suit before heading to a political club meeting. She picked up milk on the way home.

''I'm no different than any other parent out there juggling work and family,'' she said.

She has dipped into perks available to the political elite. She used campaign money to stay at the Ritz Carlton in Washington and to pick up a $1,613 tab at Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach when colleagues attended a healthcare conference. The New York and Chicago stock exchanges paid for visits by her and other members of the House financial services committee, which has oversight over the markets. Insurers and lawyers are among her top contributors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Playing to the partisan crowd at the Weston Democratic Club meeting, Wasserman Schultz ripped into Republican leaders for passing an energy bill she said would enrich the oil industry and harm the environment. Her tirade followed a stiffer speech by Davis, who is campaigning for governor. ''Why isn't she running instead?'' whispered one activist.

Upholding the first rule of Broward County politics - thou shalt schmooze - Wasserman Schultz was the last person to leave the meeting.

''The people that get in trouble in Washington let their feet leave the ground and believe all the nice things said about them,'' she said, making her way to her Honda minivan. ``I am not going to be one of those people.''


(c) 2005, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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