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Should Democrats Demand That Debbie Wasserman Schultz Step Down?

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Even if you were only casually following the news last week, you probably heard about Rudy Giuliani saying that President Barack Obama is not a patriot and doesn’t love his country. You probably also heard about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker sidestepping a question about Obama’s religion. But you may have missed a report that Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, allegedly offered to change her position on medical marijuana if a key donor retracted critical comments about her.

The story, by Politico’s Marc Caputo, has largely fallen on deaf ears, at least in the national media. But the Democratic Party shouldn’t ignore it. Wasserman Schultz has a knack for earning negative headlines. With the 2016 cycle just getting underway, is she the right person to lead the DNC?

Last week, Caputo also reported that Wasserman Schultz was considering a run for Senate in 2016—news that was not well received by medical marijuana advocates, who are still chagrined at the congresswoman’s opposition to last year's Florida ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana (it failed). Former trial lawyer John Morgan, who contributed $4 million to the initiative and is prepared to support it again in 2016, said of her possible Senate bid, “She is very safe and popular inside her district but coming out from there will be a problem in my opinion.”

Morgan and Wasserman Schultz have a complicated history. In 2012, the Florida mega-donor raised more than $100,000 for her at a fundraiser. But their friendship turned acrimonious after Wasserman Schultz announced her opposition to the ballot initiative. Since then, Morgan has not hidden his dislike for the congresswoman.

Last Wednesday evening, Wasserman Schultz’s political adviser called Ben Pollara, a political consultant for the medical marijuana initiative. We don't know exactly what they talked about, since neither is commenting. But afterward, Pollara emailed Morgan that Wasserman Schultz was in "a tizzy over this politico story. Saying she might be willing to support new amendment. Any chance you’ll retract your statement.” (Morgan leaked the emails to Caputo.) To Morgan's ears, the message was clear: Wasserman Schultz was offering to change her position on medical marijuana if he retracted his statement.

However, Wasserman Schultz strongly denies that there was ever a deal on the table. “I wouldn't change my position in exchange for support under any circumstances—ever,” she told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “I'm always very proud to stand in front of my constituents and explain when I have a difference of opinion with them." In her view, the entire dustup was the result of a miscommunication.

“I can't speak for Ben Pollara,” Sean Bartlett, the communications director for Wasserman Schultz, said in an email. “What the Congresswoman wanted conveyed to John Morgan is that before they redrew the battle lines of the past, she was more comfortable with the proposed new amendment language she had seen.” In other words, there was no quid pro quo. Wasserman Schultz simply wanted Morgan to know her position on the new initiative.

That could be true. It's tough to know without hearing from Pollara, although Caputo noted that "Pollara did not dispute POLITICO’s prior reports." The timing is certainly suspicious.

But whether or not it’s true, Wasserman Schultz attracted negative attention over the past week and clearly has a terrible relationship with a key Florida donor. It’s not the first time that she has found herself in hot water either. Last September, she said that Governor Walker, who was running for reelection at the time, “had given women the back of his hand.” She added, “What Republican tea party extremists like Scott Walker are doing is they are grabbing us by the hair and pulling us back. It is not going to happen on our watch.” She later apologized for those remarks.

A couple of weeks later, Politico published a long piece about how Democrats had turned on Wasserman Schultz, upset that she seemed to use her position for her own gain. For instance, she reportedly tried to get the DNC to pay for some of her clothing, although she denies those allegations. The report also found that she and Obama rarely speak and that the White House strongly considered replacing her after the 2012 elections. A third Politico story about her last week reported that "when she sensed Obama was considering replacing her as chair in 2013, she began to line up supporters to suggest the move was both anti-woman and anti-Semitic."

In some sense, Wasserman Schultz is lucky. If this story had been reported about a top Republican, it would have made headlines for at least a few days. Republican presidential candidates would have been inundated with questions about whether the official should step down. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, Giuliani’s comments about the president’s patriotism and Walker’s comments about Obama’s religion have been the top stories.

Republicans have rightfully complained that this is a “double standard.” Partially, that’s because the invisible primary is only underway within the Republican Party. Whenever a scandal hits the GOP, their presidential candidates inevitably face questions on the topic, whether it’s vaccines or Obama’s patriotism. They can’t avoid the media and ignore those questions like Hillary Clinton, as a non-candidate candidate, has done.

But make no mistake, this is an important story and top Democrats should face questions on it. I asked the White House and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) for a comment and did not receive any response. The offices of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Representative Ben Ray Lujan (chair of the DCCC), and Representative Chris Van Hollen, the former chair of the DCCC and a top House Democrat, have not responded to my requests for comment.

The double standard, in this instance, might work in the Republican Party’s favor. The lack of media attention might convince top Democrats to keep Wasserman Schultz in her position. But her track record of late suggests that she’ll be back in the headlines soon enough—and maybe not only in Politico. If that happens when Clinton is on the campaign trail, the media coverage will be much less friendly, and Democrats may regret not forcing her to resign at a time when most political reporters were occupied with the other party.