Politics & Government

Democrats torn between party, GOP friends

Democratic party leaders have tapped Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz to raise money and coach candidates in a high-stakes, aggressive bid to expand the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

But as three Miami Democrats look to unseat three of her South Florida Republican colleagues, Wasserman Schultz is staying on the sidelines. So is Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat and loyal ally to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

That wasn't the case just two years ago when the pair flouted a long-standing Florida delegation agreement to not campaign against colleagues and vigorously backed Ron Klein in his winning bid to oust veteran Republican Rep. Clay Shaw.

This time around, Wasserman Schultz and Meek say their relationships with the Republican incumbents, Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and his brother Mario, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, leave them little choice but to sit out the three races.

''At the end of the day, we need a member who isn't going to pull any punches, who isn't going to be hesitant,'' Wasserman Schultz said.

The decision comes as Democrats believe they have their best shot in years to defeat at least one of the Cuban-American incumbents with a roster of Democrats that include former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, outgoing Miami-Dade Democratic party chair Joe Garcia and businesswoman Annette Taddeo.

But Wasserman Schultz and Meek say their ties to the three Republicans are personal as well as professional: Both served in the state Legislature with Mario Diaz-Balart and say they work in concert with all three on South Florida issues.

Wasserman Schultz has also played a leading role in persuading the new Democratic majority to sustain the economic embargo against Cuba and has established close ties to the staunchly pro-embargo U.S.-Cuba Democracy political action committee, which has contributed thousands to Wasserman Schultz and Meek's campaigns.

Both Democrats can be ultra-partisan: Meek, a member of Pelosi's 30-Something Working Group, is a familiar face late night on C-Span, hammering Republicans and the Bush administration. He has served as vice chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, traveling the country to raise money on behalf of Democratic candidates.

And Wasserman Schultz, for the second election cycle in a row, co-chairs the campaign committee's Red to Blue program, which raises money for and provides strategic advice to top Democratic House candidates.

The national party, enthusiastic about the three Democratic challengers, has not yet selected Red to Blue participants. But Wasserman Schultz has already told the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that if any of the three make the cut, another Democrat should be assigned to the race.

''It needs to be somebody who can roll up their sleeves,'' Wasserman Schultz said. ``I'm just not that person; it's just too sensitive for me.''

She said the situation is not unprecedented. For years, members of Florida's Congressional delegation agreed to refrain from campaigning against each other -- a pact that serves to foster goodwill among lawmakers and potentially bring more federal dollars to Florida. It also can provide incumbents with a measure of protection against challengers.

''It's quite a quandary for Debbie,'' said Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman, a former legislator who roomed with Wasserman Schultz in Tallahassee. ``They've developed this working relationship that has them entirely united on South Florida issues. But Debbie has to maintain or enhance the majority or she's no longer in a position to help us.''

Meek also has told national party leaders that he won't play a role in the races. He and his mother, former Rep. Carrie Meek, are close to Martinez, the former Hialeah mayor. But Meek said the ties between his family and the Diaz-Balarts are deeper.

''I wish Raul the best,'' Meek said. ``As a Democrat, I hope he succeeds. This is the only race I wouldn't get involved in. It's just something I can't do.''

Martinez, whose strained relations with the three GOP incumbents are legendary, played down the pair's decision, noting that politics creates odd allegiances.

''I understand the dilemma they have, and I respect it,'' Martinez said. ``Everyone has to do their own thing, and I'm going to do my own thing for my race.

''If they lived in the district,'' he quipped, ``I would only ask them to quietly vote for me.''

Joe Garcia notes such nonaggression pacts are ``part of why progress is so difficult in Washington. The status quo is hard to move. But when all of this is said and done, we're going to be elected by people who live in the districts we're running in.''

The three challengers have all been endorsed by former Florida Gov. Bob Graham. Meek said he's confident they'll prosper without a boost from the House members.

However, Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks political campaigns, said the lack of support from top Democrats could make donors leery.

''Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a favorite of leadership, somebody on the move,'' Rothenberg said. ``When somebody like that doesn't want to be a major player in taking on a Republican, that's a signal.''

Yet Rothenberg says the situation is not without precedent: He noted several Republican and Democratic senators from the same states honor nonaggression pacts.

Both Meek and Wasserman Schultz have benefited from a close affiliation with the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which since its founding in 2003 has contributed $22,000 to Wasserman Schultz's campaign committee and $10,500 to Meek's.

Wasserman Schultz said the PAC support played no role in her decision, but she acknowledges she's closer to the Republican incumbents on Cuba issues than she is to the Democratic challengers, who favor easing restrictions on family travel to the island.

Wasserman Schultz has courted the Cuban-American community since she came to Washington: As a freshman legislator, she helped found the Cuba Democracy Caucus, a bipartisan group of pro-embargo legislators that works to thwart efforts to ease the embargo. She worked last year, Ros-Lehtinen says, ''like a tiger'' to help quash a push to ease travel and trade restrictions, delivering pro-travel advocates one of their biggest losses.

''When she and [Rep. Albio Sires, a Cuban-American Democrat from New Jersey] work within their party and get 65-66 votes to join us, that has made all the difference,'' Lincoln Diaz-Balart told a group of Cuban-American exiles at a recent press conference. His brother, Mario, introduced Wasserman Schultz as ``an incredible advocate who has taken the cause of a free Cuba as her own.''

A day later, Wasserman Schultz and Ros-Lehtinen lavished compliments on each other at a Washington luncheon with visiting Miami-Dade commissioners. ''I can't say enough good things about Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; she has been my friend since I was first elected to office,'' Wasserman Schultz said, noting that she relied on Ros-Lehtinen's advice to help her balance the demands of elected office and motherhood.

''She's cultivated this enormous political capital, and that's a lot to risk embracing those not entirely in line with her views,'' suggests Mauricio Claver-Carone, a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC.

The Democratic trio is unlikely to count on another lawmaker: Sires, who like Martinez and Garcia, is a Cuban-American Democrat.

''I'm concentrating on my own race,'' said Sires, who acknowledged close ties to the three Republicans. ``What binds us together is this issue of Cuba. I respect how they have fought for Cuba all these years.''