Wasserman Schultz faces rare primary fight

Congresswoman's 1st Democratic primary challenge in more than 2 decades


PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. – A roomful of senior citizens fell under the spell of Tim Canova, a law professor giving Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz her first Democratic primary challenge in more than two decades, while breakfasting on pancakes at a restaurant overlooking the golf course in Century Village.

"He swung my vote," Richard Radzville, 74, said after Canova's two-hour question-and-answer session Thursday morning. "I was going to vote for Debbie. But it's like he said --- maybe it's time for a change."

Like dozens of others in the room at the retirement community, Radzville said he had consistently voted for "Debbie," as she is known throughout the heavily Democratic Broward County congressional district she's represented for six terms.

But political newcomer Canova --- a Nova Southeastern University professor who has roots in South Florida but moved into the district four years ago --- has struck a chord in a race many people are equating to a referendum on onetime presidential opponents Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

"A new day is going to dawn on politics in Florida. It's going to happen right here where we live. To win this election is going to send a message nationwide, and the eyes of the nation are on this district," Canova, 56, told the crowd. "My opponent keeps bringing in insider politicians to campaign for her, and we're still going to beat her because this is a people's campaign, of, by and for the people."

Canova has the backing of Sanders, but Clinton, an enormously popular figure in the district, has heaped high praise on Wasserman Schultz, who until recently served as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, dropped in at the congresswoman's campaign office in Davie this month.

Wasserman Schultz is also supported by President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who will join Wasserman Schultz for services Sunday at a black church in Pembroke Pines.

The day before Canova's event at the retirement community, Wasserman Schultz appeared at a park near a Weston library, flanked by a cadre of local mayors who lauded her service and decried the national focus on the race.

"It is very important that this race not be hijacked by national rhetoric and name-calling and get bogged down. We need to focus on local issues, like flooding, like climate change, those issues that our congresswoman knows about," Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper told a reporter.

Two Republicans are also in the race, but the winner of the Aug. 30 primary in District 23 in one of the most progressive regions of the state is virtually guaranteed a post in Washington.

Canova accuses Wasserman Schultz of being beholden to "special interests" for receiving contributions from corporations and having the backing of political "super PACs" that have spent heavily on campaign ads supporting her.

Wasserman Schultz counters that nearly all of Canova's contributions come from outside of Florida, something he freely admits.

"I certainly understand that I've got a national donor base," Canova said in an interview. "The reason that I've got ordinary folks around the nation donating is because they're angry with what she did as a failed leader."

Wasserman Schultz stepped down as head of the Democratic National Committee last month after leaked internal party emails raised questions about her impartiality in the presidential primary between former Secretary of State Clinton and Sanders, a Vermont senator. The emails are believed to have been obtained by Russian hackers.

The WikiLeaks scandal, which emerged just days before the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, was a shot in the arm for Canova.

But the emails lack resonance for many Broward County hardcore Democrats, including those who remember Wasserman Schultz from her days in the state Legislature.

Howard Sternberg, an 86-year-old Kings Point resident, reflected the allegiance to Wasserman Schultz shared by many current and former constituents, including Jewish voters with strong ties to Clinton.

"She's looking out for the interests of the people who live here. She took care of the people in the district. She showed up. She talked to us. As far as I remember and recall, she was a great person for the seniors here and that was very, very important," Sternberg said.

When told of Sternberg's praise, Wasserman Schultz pointed out that she hasn't represented the Kings Point retirement community since she served in the state Senate more than a decade ago.

"The people of this district, like every district, they literally aren't asking me about emails when I'm at community forums and on the street and at Publix. Actually, a lot of them are asking me, 'Debbie, how are you doing?' " Wasserman Schultz, 49, said in an interview after the Weston appearance. "This election is going to be decided by people who live here, on the issues that matter to them every day."

Canova has criticized his opponent for failing to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal --- which he said will cost American jobs but which Obama has endorsed --- and refusing to take a stand on a proposal that would legalize medical marijuana in Florida. He's also made an issue of Wasserman Schultz's stance on Social Security, something that resonated with the elderly crowd on Thursday, and on payday lending, which targets low-income borrowers.

But Wasserman Schultz enjoys a local --- and national --- reputation as a liberal who's championed abortion rights and increases in the minimum wage while blasting Republicans as part of her role as head of the Democratic National Committee.

"If all you did was read the national media, you'd think that Debbie is this despised character," Democratic strategist Steve Schale said in a recent telephone interview. "But she's served 24 years as an elected official. She's built real and meaningful relationships in that district. She's tireless. I don't think anybody would say Debbie's lost touch."