Philadelphia—Democratic National Committee Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced Sunday that she would step down from her position at the close of this week’s Democratic National Convention, shaking to its very foundations the party she has led for five years. The Florida congresswoman’s sudden decision to quit—amid a firestorm over leaked e-mails that suggested the party apparatus was biased in its approach to the 2016 nominating race between presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—came after party leaders reportedly made moves late Saturday to strip Wasserman Schultz of her speaking slot at the convention and to replace her as the presiding chair for the quadrennial gathering of the party she has officially helmed since 2011.
The end came quickly for a party chair who just days ago had been looking forward to a triumphal convention.
As CNN reported Sunday morning, “The DNC Rules Committee on Saturday rescinded Wasserman Schultz’s position as convention chairwoman, instead naming Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, as permanent chair of the convention, according to a DNC source.”
By Sunday afternoon, Wasserman Schultz was officially on her way out—asserting that she wanted to focus on her Florida congressional district (where she faces a tough primary challenge from progressive Tim Canova) and on her new role as a Clinton campaign surrogate.
“Going forward, the best way for me to accomplish those goals is to step down as Party Chair at the end of this convention,” said Wasserman Schultz in a statement. “As Party Chair, this week I will open and close the Convention and I will address our delegates about the stakes involved in this election not only for Democrats, but for all Americans.”
DNC Vice Chair Donna Brazile, a popular figure in the party who has said the “stupidity” exposed in the DNC emails “needs to be addressed,” will serve as interim chair through the election.
Wasserman Schultz had to go. It was no longer a question of if she would leave. Only how. She will stage manage some parts of her departure. But she is going—and she is going quickly.
Replacing this DNC chair had become a priority for a growing number of Democrats—for Sanders backers, who believed she used her position to undermine the senator’s candidacy; and for many Clinton backers, who were coming to see Wasserman Schultz as a divisive figure.
There was a burgeoning sense that Wasserman Schultz had become a burden to the party, and to efforts to unify Democrats at a convention where many Clinton and Sanders delegates will arrive with distinctly different views on platform planks, party rules, and campaign strategy.
The weekend moves by top Democrats to dramatically diminish the role of the party chair at a national convention where she was once expected to be an omnipresent figure, and then the announcement by Wasserman Schultz that she was quitting, came after the revelation by WikiLeaks of thousands of DNC e-mails that have confirmed the suspicion of Sanders supporters that the committee was seeking to tip the balance of the nominating process toward Clinton. In the e-mails, top DNC staffers speculate about attacking Sanders based on his religious faith; an attorney offers the committee advice on defending Clinton against complaints about her approach to fundraising; and Wasserman Schultz calls Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver “particularly scummy” and “an ass.” The e-mails are frequently dismissive of the candidacy of the progressive senator who won 23 primaries and caucuses, more than 13 million votes, and roughly 1,900 delegates to the convention. When Sanders suggested during the campaign that he would like to replace her as chairman, Wasserman Schultz replied to an aide with a sharp e-mail that declared, “He isn’t going to be president.”
Asked about the bias displayed in the e-mails from Wasserman Schultz and other DNC insiders, Weaver observed that “much of what we felt was happening was in fact happening.”
The e-mails were not all about the presidential race. They also revealed back-channel discussions that appear to detail how donors were rewarded and penalized based on their size of their contributions. But it was the anti-Sanders e-mails that provoked a firestorm on the eve of a convention where top Democrats are hoping that progressive backers of the senator come around to Clinton.
Sanders, who said Sunday morning that he was “not shocked” by the WikiLeaks revelations, told ABC’s This Week, “I think she should resign, period.”
Former labor secretary Robert Reich, a Sanders backer, was blunter. “Hillary should fire Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Now,” wrote Reich. “Don’t wait until next week to replace her.”
Presidential candidates have been known to “accept the resignation” of DNC chairs after they are nominated. And there had been some speculation about the prospect that the Clinton camp might move Wasserman Schultz aside—if only because, even if the chair was trying to help the front-runner, she had created so much controversy and division.
There were also signals that a number of key senators wanted to see a shift in DNC leadership. (In late May, The Hill reported that Democrats on Capitol Hill were actively discussing the possible removal of Wasserman Schultz. “Democrats backing likely presidential nominee Hillary Clinton worry Wasserman Schultz has become too divisive a figure to unify the party in 2016, which they say is crucial to defeating presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump in November,” wrote the DC newspaper.) Still, the decision by Wasserman Schultz to quit came as a surprise on the day before the convention opened.
Sanders backers had for some time argued that it was time for a change. The chair’s approach to the nominating contest had provoked complaints since last year, when Wasserman Schultz arranged a bizarre debate schedule (with dates on weekends and holidays that drew low viewership) that was broadly criticized as an attempt to help Clinton avoid tough questions while at the same time preventing her challengers (Sanders, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former Rhode Island senator Lincoln Chafee, and former Virginia senator Jim Webb) from getting a prime-time hearing.
As Sanders emerged as a serious competitor with Clinton, the chair promised to remain unbiased. But she was often criticized for casting the senator in a negative light—sometimes during clashes between the DNC and the Sanders camp, but at other times when she was simply discussing the race.
While Sanders backers had expressed their opposition to Wasserman Schultz openly, a number of Clinton backers quietly discussed their disappointment in the chair. And rightly so. While Republican debates put the party in the spotlight last summer and fall, the Democratic debates started later and (because they were scheduled on Saturday nights and around holidays) drew less attention. Yet, in debate after debate, Clinton performed ably.
Even when she faced tough questions, and challenges from the other contenders, Clinton got high marks. She was polished and professional, aggressive at critical junctures and gracious at others. For their parts, Sanders and O’Malley focused on issues rather than hitting Clinton—with Sanders going so far as to dismiss questions about the front-runner’s e-mails. Even when the candidates clashed, it was never as ugly as the Republican debates featuring Donald Trump and his angry rivals—and Clinton delighted in highlighting that fact as she distinguished between the two parties.
Sanders backers had plenty of complaints about Wasserman Schultz’s debate schedule. But so too did Clinton backers; they knew that their candidate had not benefited from the ridiculously constrained schedule that the DNC put in place. And they were increasingly concerned that Wasserman Schultz’s wrangling with the Sanders camp created deeper divisions and made it harder for the party to unite.
In other words, the one thing that Sanders and Clinton supporters were beginning to agree on was this: The DNC needed a new chair. And now it will have one.