Democratic chair quits after email leaks

By Michael A. Memoli

Tribune Washington Bureau

PHILADELPHIA — The Hillary Clinton campaign, responding to leaked internal Democratic Party emails that threatened to revive tensions with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ followers, moved quickly to squelch the problem Sunday as the party’s embattled chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, announced she would step down at the end of the convention week.

Wasserman Schultz, who has long been under fire for the appearance of partiality toward Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries, announced her resignation in a statement Sunday afternoon.

The move culminated a series of steps by the Clinton campaign to sideline her — first by appointing a new party executive last month to run the party’s operations, then by taking away her speaking role at the convention and removing even the simple task of gaveling the convention in and out of session.

The announcement came after internal emails newly disclosed by the website WikiLeaks revived long-running suspicions on the part of Sanders supporters that the Florida congresswoman had tilted the scales in favor of Clinton.

On Friday, WikiLeaks released nearly 20,000 emails from a 17-month span that appeared to have been obtained by someone who hacked into the accounts of seven top party officials. The site said it was the first part of a forthcoming “Hillary Leaks” series.

One email, in particular, caught the attention of Sanders loyalists. In it, the party’s chief financial officer — an ally of Wasserman Schultz — indicated interest in raising questions about whether Sanders lacked active involvement with his Jewish heritage.

Clinton’s campaign said Sunday that the hack may have been the work of Russian operatives seeking to boost Republican nominee Donald Trump’s campaign. The Democratic National Committee had reported last month that its computer system had been hacked and that the cyber-security firm hired to investigate the breach had traced it to two groups tied to Russian intelligence organizations.

Much of the newly revealed correspondence was routine in nature, showing the typical internal machinations of a major political organization. The main exception was the email from Brad Marshall, the finance chief, which asserted that Sanders had “skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage” and that he may actually be an atheist. If so, that revelation could cost Sanders support among Southern Baptists, the email said.

Although there’s no evidence that Wasserman Schultz or other party officials acted on Marshall’s suggestion, the mere existence of the email was enough to threaten to reopen the rift with the Sanders campaign that Clinton and her allies had spent the last month mending.

After a turbulent Republican convention that highlighted that party’s internal rifts, Democrats are eager to showcase a more unified front and positive vision for the country. Wasserman Schultz, who has been denounced for months by Sanders and his supporters, had clearly become an impediment to that goal.

The Vermont senator seemed to indicate that he would continue to assist in the unity effort. During an interview several hours before Wasserman Schultz announced her decision, Sanders renewed a long-standing call for her ouster, but then briskly sought to change the subject.

“There is no question but the DNC was on Secretary Clinton’s side from Day One,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Still, he said, the most important thing was for Democrats to unite and focus on defeating Trump, whom he called “the worst Republican candidate that I have seen in my lifetime.”

Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, sought to fan the flames by suggesting that it was now Clinton’s turn to step down, given her own email correspondence controversy.

Sanders’ ire toward Wasserman Schultz has been building for months. During the primaries, he, as well as former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — the other Democratic candidate — repeatedly criticized Wasserman Schultz, who had been a vocal supporter of Clinton during the 2008 presidential primary, for crafting a debate schedule that offered limited opportunities for lesser-known candidates to gain visibility.

The Sanders campaign also protested her decision to temporarily limit their access to the party’s digital infrastructure after staffers were discovered to have taken advantage of a brief data breach and gained access to other candidates’ voter profiling.

In her statement, Wasserman Schultz did not mention the emails or any other points of tension, but said she was “proud” of her role in laying the groundwork for a united convention.

“We arrived here in Philadelphia with the most inclusive and progressive platform the party has ever proposed and a unified recommendation from the Rules Committee on our path forward as Democrats,” the statement said.

Noting her other roles as a mother and a member of Congress representing parts of South Florida — she faces a primary challenge next month from a Sanders supporter — Wasserman Schultz said the best way to help serve her constituents and ensure Clinton carries her home state, a key battleground, was to step down from her Democratic National Committee leadership role.

“I’ve been proud to serve as the first woman nominated by a sitting president as chair of the Democratic National Committee and I am confident that the strong team in place will lead our party effectively through this election to elect Hillary Clinton as our 45th president,” she said.

Donna Brazile, the DNC vice chairwoman who was a campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, will serve as interim chair through the election. She will be the first African-American woman to head the party.

Wasserman Schultz’s resignation will end a more than five-year tenure during which the party retained the White House in 2012 but then lost control of the Senate and saw its ranks in the House and governorships further reduced. But it was her role overseeing the 2016 primary process that ultimately led to her undoing.

In a statement, Clinton thanked Wasserman Schultz for her leadership of the party and said she would transition to a role as honorary chair of a 50-state program to elect Democrats across the country while also serving as a surrogate in Florida.

“I look forward to campaigning with Debbie in Florida and helping her in her re-election bid — because as president, I will need fighters like Debbie in Congress who are ready on Day One to get to work for the American people,” Clinton said.

Obama tapped Wasserman Schultz to lead the party in 2011 when Tim Kaine, now Clinton’s designated running mate, stepped down to launch a bid for the U.S. Senate in Virginia. Wasserman Schultz spoke Saturday at the rally in Miami at which Kaine was introduced.

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