Inside Tim Canova's Bernie-Fueled Bid to Upset U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz
Illustration by Jeremy Enecio
It's May 13, just after 6:30 p.m., and a grimy Fort Lauderdale Denny's reeks of cooking grease and industrial disinfectant when Tim Canova busts through the door. He's trailed by a small team of handlers.
An audience of about 20 ACLU members awaits him at a banquet table and surrounding booths. Virtually everything — the floors, the tables, the walls — is a worn shade of terra-cotta brown. Chefs shout and clang silverware in an adjacent room. The audience, nearly all male retirees in thick eyeglasses, stares wordlessly into piles of waffles, mashed potatoes, and other sorts of starch. It is perhaps the worst possible setting for a political speech.
But Canova is ready for them. He stands about six feet two, with a head shaven smooth as a watermelon and tanned a crisp shade of burnt sienna. He waves to the room, removes his jacket, and takes his place at a lectern. An American flag wilts from a flagpole beside him. "Even before I became a law professor," he says, "I was writing very critically about this alliance between Washington and Wall Street. Before I was focusing on its assault on civil liberties, I was focusing on the assault of this alliance on working-class Americans... on living standards... on our livelihoods."
In minutes, he hits crescendo — the Federal Reserve ought to bail out Main Street rather than Wall Street. But a collective pancake-crash has set in. He's lost the room. A few attendees pass notes. One woman in the back reads from a laptop.
Such is the struggle for the challenger in what may be the nation's highest-profile congressional race. As the hype around Sen. Bernie Sanders' "political revolution" has waned, attention has shifted to Canova as the Great New Hope for the nation's progressives. The Nova Southeastern University law professor is running an insurgent campaign to upset Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chair from Weston.
Canova is a virtual unknown, an egghead who was living alone in Hollywood, Florida, yelling at CNN on his couch until he was thrust into the spotlight this year. But if anyone has a chance against Wasserman Schultz, it's Canova. As legions inspired by Sanders have vowed to boot "corrupt" Democratic politicians from office and replace them with progressives, Wasserman Schultz has become the next-biggest target after Hillary Clinton.
As criticism has peaked, contributors have poured more than $2 million into Canova's campaign for Florida's 23rd Congressional District. They're mounting a spite-fueled war to oust Wasserman Schultz from office in a primary August 30. Sanders staffers, too, have migrated to South Florida to help. Not long ago, the Vermont senator encouraged supporters to send Canova money — and even endorsed him on national television. Canova must now take the mantle.
One former Sanders staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, put things bluntly: "It's the proxy campaign."
Tim Canova stands in front of an American flag in his downtown Hollywood office.
Photo by Jerry Ianelli
Debbie Wasserman Schultz was once the darling of the Florida Legislature, a rising star within the Democratic Party. But her last five years have included an unending stream of gaffes and questionable votes.
She grew up the daughter of an accountant in Lido Beach, Long Island, and attended the University of Florida, where she majored in political science and earned a master's degree in political campaigning. (The University of Florida touts her as its "most famous" political-campaigning major — her opponents, meanwhile, claim this was an early sign that she cared only about her own political well-being.)
At age 23, she became a legislative aide to then Democratic state Rep. Peter Deutsch, who told New Times: "Her resumé was so outstanding — this woman seemed off the charts." When Deutsch resigned in 1992 to seek a spot in the U.S. House, Wasserman Schultz ran for his seat representing the Florida House's 97th District, which encompassed parts of west Broward County.
To beat six other Democratic challengers, she hit the streets for hours each day, melting 18 pounds off her already-petite five-foot-two frame. It paid off. At the age of 25, she won the primary by more than 31 points and became the youngest female legislator in Florida history.
Through a representative, Wasserman Schultz denied multiple interview requests for this article. But those who knew her as a freshman lawmaker to this day seem to have almost exclusively glowing things to say. "I feel very close to her," says Diana Pittarelli, a 64-year-old retiree with sweeping blond bangs who lives in the congresswoman's district. "I call her my 'little dynamo.' "
Much of Wasserman Schultz's support comes from folks like Pittarelli, who sits on the board of a condominium complex, the Seahorse in Hollywood, and helps guide retirees to the ballot box every November. "Most of us have followed her since she was a young girl," Pittarelli says. "Most of her constituents love her."
Wasserman Schultz elbowed her way to power in male-dominated Tallahassee during her first few years. She spent eight years in the Florida House and then was elected to the state Senate in 2000. She focused on liberal causes such as "drowning deaths for infants," Pittarelli recalls. (To this day, Florida leads the nation in infant drowning deaths.) In 2000, Wasserman Schultz sponsored a bill that forced owners to place alarms and safety covers on residential pools. "She took that to heart and never let it go," Pittarelli says.
In 2002, when the Florida boating industry tried to gut the state's Manatee Sanctuary Act, which has regulated motorboat speeds in many places since the 1970s, Wasserman Schultz pushed back and persuaded the boating industry to back down. The National Save the Manatee Club honored her with a portrait of a sea cow signed by Jimmy Buffett. "She really saved the manatee last year," the organization's then-cochair, Helen Spivey, said at the time.
Then Deutsch mounted a failed run for U.S. Senate, and Wasserman Schultz won his seat in Florida's 20th Congressional District in 2004. At first, she was a charmer — during one of her first Washington snowstorms, she walked door-to-door asking congressional colleagues if they wanted to go sledding. Soon she was appointed to the Democratic Steering Committee, a powerful insider body that assigns party members to committees.
In 2007, Wasserman Schultz was diagnosed with breast cancer — and continued to work while fighting in secret. She spoke about her diagnosis publicly only after she'd beaten the disease. "I'm a very focused, methodical person, and I wasn't going to let this beat me," she told McClatchy in 2009. That year, she sponsored the EARLY Act, which funded an initiative to urge African-American and Jewish women to get mammograms. Though the measure passed with near-universal support in the House, both the American Cancer Society and National Breast Cancer Coalition opposed it, claiming increased mammograms don't necessarily lead to early cancer detection.
Then Wasserman Schultz dipped her toe into presidential politics, cochairing Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. She had grown up a Clinton fan. "[Hillary's] generation, the effort and strides they have made, that's what made it possible for me to run for the state Legislature when I was 25 years old," she told New Times during the campaign. But many in Washington characterized the move as an attempt to earn a cabinet seat. According to Politico, Wasserman Schultz secretly reached out to the Obama campaign just as the primary ended to pledge her support, unbeknownst to Clinton.
Some, such as Democratic kingmaker and friend-of-the-Clintons John Morgan, a rosy-cheeked Southern Democrat from Orlando who's the wallet behind Florida's legalized pot movement, have never forgiven her. "Debbie Wasserman Schultz is not the type of person you ever want in a foxhole with you," he says. "Even Obama knows that she was with Clinton right until he had the nomination locked up."
The gambit paid off. Wasserman Schultz became a key Obama ally during his first term and won the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in 2011. She quickly became a target for the party's left, which cast her as a Republican-in-hiding and corporate sellout — image-conscious, risk-averse, and center-leaning.
In no particular order, even before the 2016 campaign, she has:
• been accused by DNC staffers of forcing the committee to pay her clothing bill, which she steadfastly denied.
• cosponsored the failed Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have blacklisted websites deemed to have been housing "pirated content." It was opposed by Google, Facebook, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and even President Obama, who said the bill would "harm innovation."
• cosponsored a bill, still under consideration, to support the payday-lending industry, which offers high-interest, short-term loans to the nation's poorest people, sometimes at rates of 200 to 300 percent. For this, billboards on I-95 called her "Debt Trap Debbie."
• peeled back Obama-backed rules preventing lobbyists from donating to the DNC. Campaign-finance-reform advocate Fred Wertheimer called the move a "major step in the wrong direction."
Then there are the TV appearances. In 2014, domestic-violence support groups complained when she said during a Milwaukee women's-issues discussion that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had given women "the back of his hand" after supporting a string of anti-women's-rights bills. And, this past February, she told CNN that the Democratic Party's system of superdelegates — unbound, party-chosen political operatives who have great power in presidential primaries — exists so incumbents don't have to run against "grassroots activists."
Finally, there was her steadfast opposition to a 2014 Florida medical marijuana amendment, which infuriated lawyer and pot advocate Morgan. "When you look at Debbie, she is the most opportunist, most transactional, mercenary politician I've ever known," he says. "When she stands up to speak at the Democratic National Convention, the only person who could get more 'boo's is if Donald Trump got up there himself."
Sanders finally endorsed Canova in June.
Photo by Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock.com
During a brief moment of calm in the back of his downtown Hollywood campaign office on Harrison Street this past May 25, Canova falls into a chair and rubs one of his half-closed eyes. A framed photograph of a middle-aged Bernie Sanders set against the American flag hides behind a messy stack of papers in the back corner. Dressed in a neon-pink Polo shirt with the collar yawning open, he folds open an iPad to study a TV appearance. He has a head cold. "When I'm tired," he says, "that's when I'm most down about the campaign."
Canova will come to refer to this time as "the week where all hell was breaking loose." On May 21, Sanders endorsed Canova on CNN. "His views are much closer to mine than to Wasserman Schultz's," Sanders told Jake Tapper.
Then came a $250,000 surge of donations and a nonstop slew of big-time TV appearances — CNN, MSNBC, even Fox News. Though he's a man who reads constantly, regularly quotes Glenn Greenwald's website the Intercept, and has written columns for the New York Times and lefty outlets such as Dissent magazine, Canova doesn't like speaking about himself on television.
"They're all concerned about the horserace," Canova says of the media. "You know, 'What do you think of Bernie's chances?' 'How does your fundraising compare to hers?' But the voters don't care. They care about issues."
Canova has a stellar political resumé that starts with his beginnings as a lowly legislative aide to Paul Tsongas, continues in a brief turn advising Sanders, and also includes his scholarship as a law professor. But he sounds and lives like California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has revolutionized that state during five decades in politics there. The 56-year-old Canova has never married, does not own a home, and lives a Spartan lifestyle in an apartment a few blocks from the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk. He runs miles along the beach each morning and devotes himself to the liturgy of Robert Reich in the afternoon.
"I had a pretty serious girlfriend before the campaign," he says dryly. "With the campaign, it was clear that I just didn't have the time to devote to a real relationship."
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Canova admits he's basically been a lone wolf his entire life. He was the second of three children. His father died of a heart attack when Canova was 10 years old. "We grew up with heroes like Franklin Roosevelt and Teddy Roosevelt," Canova says. "My father was a Depression-era kid, a Greatest Generation kid."
His dad, he says, was an Italian immigrant who worked as an aerospace engineer for the Grumman Aerospace Corporation. He worked on the legs of the original lunar module. Canova says his father raised him to be politically aware. In some ways, his über-dedication to politics seems like a way to hold onto one of the few things his dad had time to teach him. "We were brought up speaking politics around the dinner table," Canova says.
After his father's death, the family got by on social security survivors' benefits. His mother worked round-the-clock to keep her children fed, while young Tim delivered newspapers and pumped gas. She remarried to a Jewish man when Tim was 16 years old, which sparked Canova's lifelong interest in Israeli politics. (Though Canova isn't Jewish, he supports Israel and believes in a two-state solution.)
A lean, rangy kid with a bright smile, Canova channeled much of his childhood frustration into athletics. He ran steeplechase — a type of race where runners clear hurdles and water jumps — in high school, spurring an enduring competitive streak. Canova solves almost all of his problems with running — he blows off steam, gets pumped for an event, and makes friends while jogging. He does not suffer fools — he is apt to launch into long-winded tirades against folks who misunderstand him or write him off as a nutjob. "I'm told I need to smile more and tell more jokes," he once said at a campaign event.
After earning a liberal arts degree at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, Canova moved to Washington, D.C., in 1984 and landed a job as a low-level legislative aide to Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, who went on to mount an unsuccessful campaign for president in 1992.
"I spent two years on Capitol Hill," Canova says. "Some people say that's like getting a master's degree in politics." During the 1984 election, Canova favored Colorado Sen. Gary Hart for president. Tsongas, meanwhile, backed John Glenn, a centrist Democrat. "It was interesting at my young age to realize I had a very deep philosophical difference with my own boss."
Canova loved political minutiae. He rejoiced when Tsongas tasked him with reviewing mortgage and telecommunications laws. "There were two types of folks on Capitol Hill: those who were really in it for public relations, and those who actually got the legislation, who were the lawyers," Canova says.
In 1986, he left Tsongas' office with the intent to attend law school. But before enrolling, he spent some time picking avocados on an Israeli kibbutz. "I lived in a literal hut," he says. "There were no bathrooms, and it was drafty." He often strapped on a backpack and wandered the Middle East, including Egypt. "I would sleep on beaches under the stars," he says, "or on rooftops."
After returning to the States, he enrolled in Georgetown's law school, earned his degree in 1988, and then moved to New York City to work for corporate law firm Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander & Ferdon, which had once employed Richard Nixon.
Though friends flocked into cushy Wall Street jobs, Canova decided to teach. With some extended family in South Florida, he accepted an offer from the University of Miami's law school. He figured he was leaving the political world for good.
Samuel Thompson, former dean of the UM law school, says he noticed Canova running alone each morning around campus and joined him. "He ran my ass into the ground," Thompson says, laughing. "I didn't particularly like it."
Both men were high-minded idealists who loved arguing with each other about complex economic problems. The pair even taught a course together. Thompson remembers a discussion in class that stood out: "He made the point that it's very important for folks like ourselves, who are in the law profession, to appreciate that a lot of folks who aren't professionals are really struggling," Thompson recalls. "That stuck with me."
Canova then bounced to a tenured slot at the University of New Mexico. While teaching legislative history, he routinely forced his students to track bills, Schoolhouse Rock-style, from inception to death or passage. One bill particularly caught Canova's eye — one proposing to restore voting rights to ex-convicts in the state. He instructed his students to send a flood of emails and phone calls to the politicians working on the bill. "We got a lot of students, a lot of community activists involved enough to actually pick up the phone and call their congressman," Canova says.
"When it got to the governor's desk, the phone was ringing off the hook nonstop, and it was all my kids." The bill passed, restoring voting rights to thousands of New Mexicans.
Another step into politics came in 2011, when Sanders — then a Vermont senator and not yet a presidential candidate (but the only socialist in the United States Senate) — asked Canova to help mount a campaign to reform the Federal Reserve, the nation's central bank. Canova joined 19 renowned economists, including Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and United Nations adviser Jeffrey Sachs.
The group met in October 2011 at Sanders' Washington office for a series of high-school-cafeteria-style arguments over spending policy.
"And then we met with Ben Bernanke on a conference call," Canova says. During that call, Canova pushed Bernanke, then Federal Reserve chair, to invest in infrastructure and help alleviate student debt. "Ben and I strongly disagreed on that conference call," he recalls.
The next year, he would take a tenure-tracked job at Nova Southeastern. A run for office wasn't far away.
Wasserman Schultz hugs singer Jerry Bazua at a recent campaign event in Davie.
Photo by Jerry Ianelli
On June 15, 2015, Debbie Wasserman Schultz voted, along with 27 other Democrats, in favor of giving President Obama the authority to "fast-track" his Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would reduce trade barriers with countries including Vietnam, Australia, Singapore, and Brunei. (Obama signed the deal in February.)
Convinced the TPP would suck jobs out of the States and ship them to countries where wages were low, Canova fumed. He began to pace around his apartment. He told a few friends he might make a run at Wasserman Schultz's seat, which represents the southern third of Broward County plus a gerrymandered tendril of the Miami-Dade County coastline all the way down to Miami Beach.
"I called a few political analysts for some advice," Canova says, "and they laughed me out of the room."
David Heller, a longtime Miami Beach political consultant, said running against Wasserman Schultz would amount to political suicide. "She is beloved in that district," he says.
Howie Klein, who operates the Blue America Political Action Committee, which raises money for progressive candidates, is a longtime Wasserman Schultz adversary. He recalls cold-calling Canova around that time. "I told him to please, please, please think about running really closely," Klein says. "I called him out of the blue just to tell him how important it is that she can't keep on winning without a challenge. The only way to get out that evil is with a primary."
Also, Canova emailed John Morgan. "I thought, This is some wacko liberal professor," Morgan recalls. "But it turns out he really knew his stuff. So I told him that I thought America is really tired of these professional hacks like Debbie Wasserman Schultz."
This past January, Canova, with no formal plan or campaign staff, threw his name into the ring, loaning his campaign $15,000 — money he'd planned to use to buy a house. "My plan for day one," he says, "is to build a coalition to overturn Citizens United," a 2010 Supreme Court decision that removed limits on donations from corporations.
Canova virtually adopted Sanders' platform: He began talking about universal, state-sponsored health care and ending the War on Drugs.
Meanwhile, "Bernie Bro" hatred for Wasserman Schultz ballooned. As Democratic National Committee chair, she limited the number of debates between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, thus giving the former secretary of state an unfair advantage.
One event in particular launched Canova into action. At the end of December, the DNC caught a Sanders staffer improperly accessing Clinton campaign documents. In response, Wasserman Schultz barred the Vermont senator's campaign from using the DNC's protected voter file. Sanders took to the airwaves to accuse Wasserman Schultz of election-rigging and then sued the DNC.
"You know, by and large, people at the DNC have been very good to us," Sanders' chief of staff, Jeff Weaver, told CNN."Debbie Wasserman Schultz really is the exception."
The congresswoman's haters, largely from places outside Florida, began pouring money into Canova's campaign. Of the initial $500,000 Canova raised, just 10 percent came from the Sunshine State. (Thirty percent of Wasserman Schultz's donations have also come from out-of-state.) On Reddit, where momentum was gathering for Canova among Sanders supporters, a Californian named CyrexCore2k wrote, "Just donated to Tim Canova. Go get it, Floridians."
Then Canova learned he was barred from accessing the DNC's voter-data files — just as Sanders had been — because of party rules. "At the congressional level, the files were available only to incumbents," he says. "I completely understand the need to protect incumbents from Republicans, but from other Democrats in a primary?"
Eventually, the party relented, but the move gave Canova more free publicity than he expected. By March 31, he had raised $550,000 from more than 50,000 people. It appeared Wasserman Schultz had a fight on her hands.
Then Sanders people, including Zack Exley, the former organizing director at MoveOn.org, began offering help. In February, Exley met Canova for dinner in Hollywood. He joined the Canova campaign for two weeks in March. Exley, who declined an interview, has since left the campaign to run the initiative Brand New Congress, which aims to teach activists to defeat congressional incumbents.
"Look at this race," Canova says. "If we win, I think it becomes the template for all of it."
This past June 8, the Sanders campaign announced it would lay off staffers. Twenty-four-year-old Griff Hibbard-Curto, a tall, bearded hipster type with thick glasses and a man bun, was one victim. He quickly took a spot as a Canova regional field director. "All the political organizers reached out to Tim after the layoffs," he says. (Many Sanders acolytes have also flocked to the campaign of New York congressional candidate Zephyr Teachout.)
Around that time, a group of rowdy Bernie Bros threw chairs during a Nevada Democratic convention. Wasserman Schultz again hopped onto CNN to launch an attack. "It is never OK for violence and intimidation to be the response to that frustration," she said. "That's what happens with the Trump campaign." On May 22, Sanders told CNN's Tapper that, if elected president, he would fire Wasserman Schultz.
"If the party is going to come together, the conduct that we saw from the chairwoman's office over the course of this campaign really is a sticking point for a lot of people out there who support Senator Sanders," Weaver, Sanders' chief of staff, said on MSNBC.
By the end of the month, Canova's campaign war chest had ballooned to more than $2 million. So far, he's used the money to open four field offices, including one, he says with a snicker, in Wasserman Schultz's hometown of Weston.
Canova's industrial-looking Harrison Street headquarters is crammed with mismatched folding tables sitting atop a concrete floor. A stack of envelopes the size of a Thanksgiving turkey platter lies on a wooden IKEA table in a small back room. Canova personally signs thank-you notes to those who send him large donations, and so many people have now done so that he spends hours each day autographing the missives.
On a recent day, Canova stares at the pile with disdain. "With the average donation at $20, thank God we don't have to sign letters for everyone," his chief of staff, Richard Bell, says. "But we're still getting tons."
John Morgan, meanwhile, says he might soon bring in the cavalry and rally big-time donors to Canova's cause. "If he's within striking distance, I can make one email that will get him $250,000," Morgan says. "But I need to see a poll. There's been no poll done, and it's not in my own interest to pay for a poll myself." In a congressional primary, it's largely up to the candidates to conduct their own polls, and neither has yet released one.
But Canova knows he's running against near-impossible odds: In the Democratic presidential primary, 72 percent of Broward County, which makes up most of Wasserman Schultz's district, voted for Hillary Clinton. In a proxy fight, where Clinton voters would presumably vote for Wasserman Schultz, those are dreadful prospects. "We've got an uphill battle," Canova admits.
By now, each candidate has raised roughly $2 million, and Canova soon plans to run TV ads blasting his opponent.
Despite all of the help, it's clear he has a ways to go. On June 8, Canova gathered a small crowd of supporters to celebrate an endorsement from the Pipefitters Local 725. A bored-looking, brown-haired Sun Sentinel cameraman was there to film the event.
"And now," Canova said, "I'd like to call Javier Garcia from the Pipefitters Local 725 to help give the endorsement." No one stepped forward. "Javier?" Canova asked, his voice wavering.
Deborah Dion, a woman with a gray bob haircut who serves as Canova's spokesperson, shoved a few hapless fans aside as she stormed into the back of the office, shouting "Javier! Javier!"
Canova clasped his hands behind his back. "I'd like to answer any questions related to policy," he ad-libbed before launching into an attack on Wasserman Schultz and her fat-cat supporters.
Javier, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found.
Update: After publication, a Wasserman Schultz spokesperson sent New Times an email saying it denies Politico's assertions that the congresswoman had reached out to the Obama campaign during his 2008 campaign.
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