From stressing the importance of hard work to fielding questions about school safety and gun control, U.S. Congressman Debbie Wasserman Schultz had the full attention of a group of about 50 Carroll County High School students Friday.
Schultz, the youngest female legislator in Florida’s history and the former chairperson of the Democratic National Committee, joined CCHS students from Lisa Hurst’s English 11 class, Shawn Montgomery’s U.S. Government Honors’ class, and Brandi Cochran-Mitchell’s Dual Credit U.S. History class for a 30-minute flash chat.
The flash chat was made possible by DreamWakers, an educational organization that connects classrooms to career role models. Hurst was named DreamWakers’ Teacher of the Year in 2016 and has used the organization in the past to connect her students to journalists and television news anchors, among others. But Friday’s video chat held extra meaning.
“I think this is probably going to be one of the highlights of our teaching careers. It’s that big,” Hurst told students prior to the video chat. “Just the preparation and logistics between us and Congressman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s office has been unreal.”
After becoming the youngest woman elected as a Florida legislator, Schultz served eight years in that role before making a successful run for Florida’s state senate in 2000. She was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2005 and has served Florida’s 23rd District ever since.
A trailblazer in a multitude of ways, Schultz was also the first Jewish congresswoman ever elected in Florida. But she told Carroll students it was not always that easy, as she twice made unsuccessful bids for student government during grade school because she wasn’t in the “so-called popular group.” She went on to be elected for student government in college at the University of Florida and hasn’t lost an election since. Despite not being “embraced by the good old boys,” she won 53 percent of the vote in a six-way race for the Democratic Primary for the state legislature. From that experience came a valuable lesson she shared with Carroll students.
“You have a theme of perseverance and determination. You not are always going to be successful. My motto in life is I might not always win the day, I might not convince everybody that I am right, but I will be damned if I am going to lose because I got outworked,” Schultz said. “For me, hard work is the thing I have the ability to control. There is nobody that can outwork me. No matter what anyone has said about me, agree with me, disagree with me through my whole career, everyone acknowledges that I work hard. And I will tell you that hard work will carry you really, really far because you think about the people you know. There are a lot of lazy people in this world and I mean that in the nicest way possible. But it is not that hard to outwork most people because most people want to phone it in and do it the easy way. So if you are the hardest worker you can often succeed.”
Abby Carico was the first Carroll student to ask Schultz a question. She wanted to know what her approach is to get to know the constituents she represents. Again, the answer for Schultz was hard work.
“One of the best ways I got to know my constituents was by knocking on 25,000 doors,” Schultz said. “Personally talking with people and being a door-to-door, neighbor-to-neighbor candidate, I try to make sure people really know me, being in the community, talking about their priorities, asking people what is on their mind.”
Autumn Pollard asked Schultz if she had ever been involved in any legislation to prevent gun violence in schools. Schultz said that she had, adding that the county she represents in Florida includes Parkland, where 17 people were killed recently in a school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“We have just been through the worst tragedy my community has experienced in the 30 years I have lived here and probably much longer than that. This is a community in pain but students, not just from Stoneman Douglas, but all over the country have really risen up and made it very clear that we need to protect our schools,” Schultz said. “The most important thing you can do is deal with the guns and so I co-sponsored a semiautomatic assault weapons ban because I don’t think a weapon of war should be in the hands of a civilian. Also, high-capacity magazines. I have spoken to life NRA members here in our community and to a person they say you don’t need more than 10 rounds in a magazine. More rounds than that is designed for nothing else than killing more people.”
The Congresswoman added background loopholes, including dealing with ammunition, need to be closed. She said it is just as illegal for a felon, someone deemed mentally ill, or a domestic-violence abuser to purchase ammo as it is to purchase a gun.
“And yet nowhere in the country do we ask more than your first name when someone goes in to purchase ammunition,” she said. “So you can be a felon and go in and buy hundreds of rounds of ammo and even if you are not able to get a gun, if you can get a gun in a non-legal way, you have all the ammunition you need and it is the ammunition that actually does the harm.”
Jerry Cooke asked Schultz if she thought there should be tighter regulations on firearms or more focus on the mental side. Schultz said both were needed.
“It is not a matter of choosing either/or. We do have to address the mental health challenges that too many people in our country are facing,” Schultz said. “But that is not a substitute for addressing the need to make sure we have commonsense gun safety laws. We can’t even get agreement in Washington that someone on the No Fly List should not be able to access or purchase a firearm. Right now someone on the No Fly List is not banned from purchasing a weapon. Someone on the terrorist watch list is not banned from purchasing a weapon. If you are too dangerous to fly you are too dangerous to buy. There are just some commonsense place things we need to put in place in addition to the very significant needs we have to invest in more mental health care.”
Drew Reavis asked if Schultz believed minorities are fairly and equally represented in our government. The Florida congresswoman said minorities certainly are not equally represented or proportionally represented.
“We most definitely don’t have enough diversity in representation at every level of government all across the country. It has gotten much better than it was,” Schultz said. “There is a very significant difference if you look at the percentage of diversity by party. The Democratic Party is where the overwhelmingly majority of diversity is…Republicans are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male and our caucus is extremely diverse. We have 45 African American members, we have 25 Hispanic members, 64 women. We have 20 Jewish members, so we are quite diverse. We really need more diversity in congress. It would be nice if there was an effort made by our counterparts on the other side of the aisle to recruit a more diverse candidacy but I think their agenda would probably have to change to be attractive to a more diverse group of candidates.”
Eli Barr asked Schultz her view about the problem of the homeless and unemployed veterans and what steps should be taken to improve the situation. Schultz said she is the ranking Democratic member on the House Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.
“I spend a lot of time on the funding for our veterans and making sure they are well cared for. We just make a significant investment, increasing the budget for the VA by $7 billion, a very important investment. We lose 22 veterans a day to suicide. PTSD is a huge problem, thankfully one that is acknowledged now,” Schultz said. “We welcome our returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan and other parts of the world to where when veterans came back from Vietnam they were spat upon. It has been so critical for us to make sure the people who serve our country and risk their lives for our country realize how much we appreciate them, understand that we know the risks they are taking and the sacrifices their families are taking. I am glad we are at least treating them with the respect they deserve now, but talk is cheap and we have to make sure we continue to invest in their health care and make sure they get the benefits they need.”
Houston Dixon asked Schultz if she felt like co-sponsoring the Stop the School Violence Act is enough in protecting innocent children and teachers from school shooters. Schultz said the answer is no, adding that the legislation was introduced before the Stoneman Douglas school shooting and not as a response to it.
“It is important and a good bill and I am glad it passed the house. But it only addressed school safety and the things we need to do to make schools are generally more safe in terms of the infrastructure and also the investments we make in things like SROs,” Schultz said. “But as so many of the students in the Never Again movement have said, that should not be seen or allowed to become a distraction from what the main focus needs to be, and that is to limit access to the types of weapons civilians can get, and specifically make sure that no one that by law cannot purchase a weapon can do so. So closing these background check loopholes is an absolute must.”
Casey Williams told Schultz that she appreciates all her hard work and dedication and setting an example for women. She asked Schultz if she planned on spreading her influence across the nation and running for president.
“No,” Schultz said emphatically. “No, but there are lots of ways to make sure you broaden your reach and you can make a difference and affect other people’s lives without running for president. I served as the chair of the Democratic National Committee for five-and-a-half years so I was the leader of my party nationally and traveled all over the country to help recruit candidates, often times women, focused on recruiting diverse candidates to run for office, focused on voter turnout and making a difference and shaping my party’s agenda. So there are lots of ways you can really make a sizeable difference without running for president.”
Cade Bullen got the last student question. He asked Schultz what her major concerns are about the current status of the country. Schultz said she had quite a few, but first and foremost she said it was important to stop the destabilization of the health care system.
“What the president is doing to really upend the system created by the Affordable Care Act, which covered an additional 25 million people who did not have health insurance before, is absolutely irresponsible,” Schultz said. “You never know what life will throw at you and if you don’t have your health you don’t have anything. But making sure we take that issue off the table so you don’t have to worry about whether you can afford insurance is huge. (President Donald) Trump is making some very big errors. It is important to have a president who is truthful and this president is not.”
Following the video chat, Hurst said she thought it was important for students to be able to hear from the people that lead our nation.
“A lot of these kids don’t travel outside of Carroll County or the furthest they may get is to go to North Carolina to the beach, so I think this will help them realize hard work and determination will get you far in life and there is a big world out there outside of Carroll County,” Hurst said.
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN