This election season, establishment candidates have been put on the defensive.
That’s true in the presidential campaign and in races further down on the ticket, including the re-election bid by the head of the Democratic National Committee, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
In Florida, a Democratic challenger in the mold of Bernie Sanders, Tim Canova is drawing on national support and is providing Wasserman Schultz with the first primary challenge of her career.
Florida’s 23rd congressional district is heavily Democratic, and Wasserman Schultz has won there easily six times before. She’s the favorite to win again, but she is being pushed by Canova, who served on a Wall Street reform advisory panel for Sanders in 2011 and is accusing Wasserman Schultz of being too cozy with big banks.
As DNC chairperson, she has easy access to the national media and to party donors. But Wasserman Schultz’s role as spokesperson for the Democratic establishment has also made her a target.
‘She looks to line her pocket’
On a recent weeknight, Canova was at a Pipefitters Union hall in Opa-Locka, a Miami suburb, making his pitch to about 30 members. His major theme is that Wasserman Schultz receives too much money from banks and big business.
“She has a safe district,” he told union members. “And what does she do with her safety? Does she look after her constituents? She looks to line her pocket. She’s moved up in the ranks in the hierarchy of the Democratic Party. And she’s done it by taking millions of dollars.”
If that sounds a little like Bernie Sanders’ attacks on Hillary Clinton, that’s not a coincidence. Canova advised Sanders on financial regulation and endorsed him early in his presidential bid.
Canova says he decided to run for Congress after working last year to fight the Trans Pacific Partnership, the Asia trade deal pushed by the Obama administration and supported by Wasserman Schultz.
Problems with trade, banks, the nuclear deal and payday loans
While Canova agrees with Wasserman Schultz on many social issues, Canova accused Wasserman Schultz of not looking out for the economic interests of people in her district, especially young people.
“I see this generation as really suffering from a very weak job market,” Canova said. “The trade agreement’s outsourced a lot of jobs. But there’s a lot to be done even aside from trade that has not been on her radar. “
While he works to get his name out to Democrats in this South Florida district, Canova has picked up a lot of support nationally. Among progressives in the Democratic Party, there’s a lot of anger for Wasserman Schultz and the party-at-large for being too cozy with banks and Wall Street.
In the first quarter, as a largely unknown Democratic challenger, Canova pulled in more than $500,000 in contributions, most of it from outside Florida. He expects to have $1 million by the next reporting deadline.
Canova believes Wasserman Schultz is out of step with constituents on economic and other issues, such as her support for President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. The head of the Democratic Club in Sunny Isles, Lew Thaler said when Canova spoke to his group recently, he told them he would have opposed it.
“Sunny Isles Beach is a very big Jewish community,” Thaler says. “There are a substantial amount of Jewish people here. He satisfied them.”
There are others besides Canova taking aim at Wasserman Schultz. An outside group, Allied Progress, has paid for billboards attacking her for supporting a bill that would prevent federal regulators from setting terms for payday loans. Those are high-interest, short-term loans consumer groups criticize as predatory.
In an interview on Miami’s CBS4 recently, Wasserman Schultz defended her support for the bill.
“Payday lending is unfortunately a necessary component of how people get access to capital, (people) that are the working poor,” Wasserman Schultz said.
Financial support from progressive Democrats from around the country has been vital for Canova. And Sean Foreman, an associate political science professor at Barry University in Miami said once Sanders is out of the presidential race, the flood of money is only likely to grow.
“Those who want to see Bernie Sanders win the nomination — and when they realize the path for him is virtually over, they may look for smaller victories in Senate or House races,” Foreman said.
Florida’s congressional primary comes in late August, a month after Democrats will have settled on a presidential candidate and begin looking to races in Congress.