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Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s Challenger Has a Chance

Thousands of Democrats want the DNC chair to resign. Populist Timothy Canova has another idea.

Getty Images/Chapman University

During the presidential primary, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has managed the impressive feat of angering virtually every liberal in America. Bernie Sanders supporters think she displays a transparent bias for Hillary Clinton. Party stalwarts, including Clinton fans, criticize the decision to hide primary debates on weekend nights, ceding hours of free media time to Republicans in the formative stages of the election. And in a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine, Wasserman Schultz insulted millennial women for being “complacent” about abortion rights. This is an incomplete list.

In two separate petitions, more than 94,000 people have demanded that Wasserman Schultz resign as DNC chair. But back in her district, in Hollywood, Florida, Timothy Canova has another idea: vote her out of office.

Last Thursday, Canova, a former aide to the late Sen. Paul Tsongas and a professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad College of Law, jumped into the Democratic primary in Florida’s 23rd congressional district. It’s Wasserman Schultz’s first primary challenge ever, and with frustration running high against her, it’s almost certain to draw national attention. But Canova first became interested in challenging Wasserman Schultz not because of her actions as DNC chair, but because of her record.

“This is the most liberal county in all of Florida,” Canova said in an interview, referring to Broward County, where most of Wasserman Schultz’s district resides (a small portion is in northern Miami-Dade County). But she more closely associates with her significant support from corporate donors, Canova argued. He listed several of Wasserman Schultz’s votes, such as blocking the SEC and IRS from disclosing corporate political spending (which was part of last month’s omnibus spending bill), opposing a medical marijuana ballot measure that got 58 percent of the vote in Florida, preventing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from regulating discrimination in auto lending and opposing their rules cracking down on payday lending, and supporting “fast track” authority for trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“I think anyone who voted for fast track should be primaried. I believe that ordinary citizens have to step up,” Canova said. 

Canova espouses many of the populist themes that attract the left: fighting corporate power, defending organized labor, and reducing income inequality. But this is not just a Bernie Sanders Democrat. You have to go back further. Tim Canova is a Marriner Eccles Democrat.

Eccles chaired the Federal Reserve during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. And Canova believes the central bank should revisit Eccles’s unorthodox strategies to jump-start a broad-based economic recovery. “In the 1930s, the regional Fed banks made loans directly to the people,” Canova said. “Instead of purchasing $4 trillion in Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, [the Fed] could buy short-term municipal bonds and drive the yield to zero for state and local governments. They could push money into infrastructure, making loans to state infrastructure banks.” Canova has even suggested that the government create currency outside of the central bank, breaking their monopoly on the money supply, as President Abraham Lincoln did with the “Greenback” in the 1860s.

During World War II, FDR directed Eccles’s Fed to finance American war debt at low rates, eventually producing a stimulus that helped to end the Great Depression. It was a time when the Fed was far more accountable to democratically elected institutions, one that Canova looks back upon fondly. “People like to talk about the Fed’s independence, that’s really a cover for the Fed’s capture,” he said. “They look out for elite groups in society, and the hell with everybody else.” 

A growing faction of progressives are beginning to return to their roots, asking whether Fed policies truly support the public interest. The Fed Up campaign, with which Canova has consulted, seeks to pressure the Fed to adopt pro-worker policies. A surprise movement in Congress just cut a 100 year-old subsidy the Fed handed out to banks by $7 billion. Even mainstream figures like economist Larry Summers wonder whether the Fed’s hybrid public/private structure, which critics believe makes it beholden to financial interests, makes sense. 

Progressive debates on central banking are not as advanced here as in Europe, where British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn wants a “quantitative easing for people,” where the central bank injects money directly into the economy rather than filtering it through financial institutions. But Canova, who says his views were most influenced by an undergraduate economics professor who taught with one book—John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money—bridges this gap. Twenty years ago this week, he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times opposing the reappointment of Alan Greenspan as Fed chair because of his support for high real interest rates. If elected this fall, he would instantly become the strongest advocate in Congress for a people’s Fed.

While Debbie Wasserman Schultz has few known views on the Federal Reserve, Canova’s populism offers a strong counterweight to her corporate-tinged philosophy. And even before that contrast plays out, the hunger for any challenge to Wasserman Schultz is palpable. 

“The money is coming in more rapidly than believable,” said Howie Klein, co-founder of Blue America PAC, which raises money for progressive Democrats. Wasserman Schultz has been on Klein’s radar since she, as chair of the “Red to Blue” campaign for electing House Democrats, refused to campaign against three Republicans in Florida because of prior friendships and their joint support for the state sugar industry.

Klein sent a Blue America fundraising email shortly after Canova’s announcement, and raised $7,000 within 12 hours, and over $10,000 at last count. The intensity of support reached beyond the PAC’s traditional donor base. “Our average donation is $45, but in this case we’re getting $3, $5,” Klein said. “For people who our donors have never heard of, it can take three-four months to do that. It’s just because of Debbie Wasserman Schultz.” 

Similarly, Canova says he’s seeing tens of thousands of visits to his website and Facebook page, suggesting support beyond south Florida. However, he wants to localize rather than nationalize the race. The district, initially drawn with Wasserman Schultz’s input when she served in the Florida state Senate, is now more Hispanic and less reliable for a politician who Canova believes has lost touch with her constituents.

“You talk to people at the Broward County Democratic clubs, they say she takes us for granted,” Canova said. The political model for his campaign is David Brat, another academic who took on a party leader—then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor—and defeated him, on the grounds that Cantor ignored his district amid constant corporate fundraising.

If there’s one thing Wasserman Schultz can do, it’s raise money—that’s why she chairs the party. She will have a big cash advantage and the power of incumbency. But Canova thinks he can outmatch her by riding the populist tide. “There’s a tendency to get so down about the system, but this is an interesting moment we’re living in,” Canova said. “This is a grassroots movement. We’re tapping in without even trying yet.”