Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s toxic brew of fierce partisanship and eyebrow-arching statements has been alienating moderate voters and raising conservatives’ ire ever since she assumed the position in May. “DWS” has arrived on the national stage with a bang, exhibiting a contentious relationship with the truth and a special knack for incendiary rhetoric. Given her prominent role as a top party spokesperson, fundraiser and cheerleader, some of Wasserman Schultz’s critics may forget that she simultaneously wears another hat: Three-term Congresswoman from Florida’s 20th Congressional District. Karen Harrington wants to strip DWS of that title in 2012.
A local businesswoman and relative political novice, Harrington is gearing up for a second run at DWS in the upcoming general election. Last year, she cobbled together a rag-tag, under-funded campaign, and fell to the incumbent by a 61-39 margin. This time, she says, could be different: “We didn’t know what we were doing [in 2010]. We ran a short, five-month campaign and didn’t have very much money. This time we’ll have 18 months, and we’ve brought [Florida Senator] Marco Rubio’s finance chairman on board. We’re traveling the district and the state introducing ourselves. A lot of people really don’t like Debbie.”
Although 2010 marked the first time in DWS’ Congressional career that she attracted less than 70 percent of the vote, Harrington readily admits that 2012 will still be an uphill climb. Voter registration runs roughly 2-to-1 Democrat to Republican in the district. Nevertheless, the Harrington campaign views President Obama’s unpopularity – especially in Florida, where only 41 percent of state voters say he deserves a second term, according to a new Quinnipiac poll – as a major vulnerability for their opponent in 2012.
“America realizes that Obama’s policies are failing. It’s Debbie’s job to defend them, and sometimes she blatantly lies in doing that,” Harrington says. If Obama’s dismal numbers don’t improve in the Sunshine State, a reflexive and prominent Obama defender may run into trouble anywhere -- even a left-leaning district that encompasses much of Broward County, and part of Miami Dade.
The Harrington campaign will also seek to exploit another perceived Achilles’ heel associated with DWS’ new role at the DNC. “The people of our district elected her, and she’s getting paid to be our Congresswoman, but she’s never home. She’s always flying around the country campaigning and raising money for other people. We’re an afterthought,” Harrington says. This line of attack has spawned a snappy, unofficial Harrington campaign slogan: “Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a part-time Congresswoman, but she’s America’s full time problem.”
The Republican has crisscrossed the state spreading that message, and has generated a steady stream of donations. “Fundraising has been pretty good so far. We’ve been raising money from both inside and outside the district because Debbie is becoming a household name, and a lot of people want to beat her,” she explains. One of Harrington’s most effective fundraising tools is simply repeating her opponent’s own words, which more than occasionally drift into the realms of blind Obama devotion, inflammatory attacks, and factual inaccuracy. “Debbie’s mouth is the gift that keeps on giving,” Harrington chuckles.
The contrasts between the two women are numerous and substantial. Wasserman Schultz has been active in Florida politics for two decades, relentlessly working her way up the food chain from local office holder to Congresswoman to national party chairwoman. She has “zero private sector experience,” according to Harrington, whose biography is markedly different. She runs her family’s successful restaurant business, which consists of three branches of “Rickey’s” eateries in the greater Ft. Lauderdale area.
“We’re known for our wings -- family recipe since 1978,” Harrington beams. “But you wouldn’t want to miss our homemade key lime pie, either.” It’s clear that she takes immense pride in her family’s hard work and success. “I’ve done everything at Rickey’s, from cutting chicken for the wings to managing the restaurants,” she explains. A central element of running the local franchises involved managing personnel; Harrington employs approximately 95 people. She says she knows what it takes to pay the bills and meet a payroll, another piece of real-world experience DWS lacks.
Ironically, the Democratic incumbent has actually helped grow Harrington’s business over the years. “She and her husband used to eat at our restaurants all the time,” Harrington recalls. Wasserman Schultz’s patronage curiously dried up last year, however. “We noticed that Debbie stopped coming in after I first ran for office, which I guess isn’t a surprise. She likes punishing the private sector when things don’t go her way.”
The chasm between Harrington and Wasserman Schultz extends far beyond background and experience, of course; they’re also worlds apart ideologically. “I’m a conservative Republican,” Harrington says, explaining that she doesn’t embrace the Tea Party label because her passion on issues pre-dates the existence of that movement. Her policy goals settle comfortably within the GOP mainstream: Repealing Obamacare, reining in taxes and regulations (“they’re killing us because it’s so hard to plan ahead”), and addressing the exploding national debt. She supports the Ryan budget, and backed the House-passed “Cut, Cap, and Balance” debt reduction measure this summer. Harrington is pro-life and supports the Defense of Marriage Act, although she concedes that social issues “aren’t on a lot of people’s front-burners right now.”
Another issue on which Harrington senses an opening to challenge DWS is US-Israeli relations. Florida, and especially the 20th district, is home to a large and engaged Jewish population. “I’m a strong supporter of Israel. Debbie says she is, too, but as DNC Chair, she has to stand behind this president and all of his positions,” she says, sounding a well-worn theme. After quoting statistics suggesting that Obama’s support among Jewish Floridians has eroded considerably since 2008, Harrington alleges that Wasserman Schultz has backpedaled and obfuscated on Obama’s infamous “1967 borders” comments made in mid-May. “It’s amazing. Debbie has been side-stepping these questions,” she scoffs, adding that her campaign kept a very close eye on the dynamics of the GOP upset in NY-09 earlier this month.
Israel isn’t the only subject on which Wasserman Schultz has been elusive. She refused to debate Harrington last year, turning down all four invitations – a relatively common tactic of comfortable incumbents. One of the few opportunities that district voters have to meet with their representative, Harrington asserts, is at unannounced, highly controlled and choreographed “town hall” meetings.
“Debbie Wasserman Schultz doesn’t have any real plans to help our district or fix this economy. All she does is attack,” Harrington says, arguing that South Florida voters deserve an on-the-job representative who isn’t tasked with defending every last one of her party’s failed ideas. “We’re making name ID and fundraising inroads, and we’re getting ready to give Debbie her toughest fight ever,” she says. To that end, her campaign has launched its official website: FireDebbie.com.