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Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz spoke with Jim DeFede about the passing of longtime South Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings, who she regards as a mentor and a pillar of the community.
- Now from CBS4 News, this is facing South Florida with Jim DeFede.
JIM DEFEDE: Good morning. I'm Jim DeFede and welcome to Facing South Florida. Later today, we will speak to Jared Moskowitz, the Director of the Florida Department of Emergency Management regarding his criticism of last week's 60 Minutes piece on Governor Ron DeSantis' vaccination policies. We will also talk to Marcia Fudge, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, about President Biden's plan for building more affordable housing in Florida.
But we begin with the death of Congressman Alcee Hastings. In our first interview since Hastings died, Debbie Wasserman Schultz remembers her friend and mentor, who passed away this week after a long battle with cancer. Now let's be clear about something, Alcee Hastings was not a perfect man. In the 1980s he was accused of accepting a bribe as a federal judge. He went to trial and was found not guilty.
A few years later, he was impeached and removed from the federal bench by the United States Senate. He subsequently was elected to Congress, where he served for three decades. Regardless of the allegations surrounding his impeachment, Hastings was someone who fought on the side of those who often did not have a voice. He did it as a civil rights attorney in South Florida in the 60s and 70s, and he continued doing it while in Congress. Let me also note this has been a difficult week for Wasserman Schultz, whose mother recently passed away. And so that's where we started.
Let's remember your mom. Tell me a little bit about her.
DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: And that's so hard. I can tell you I haven't been asked a question about either of my parents in all the years I've served in office. My mother was-- Ann Wasserman, was just the most devoted committed mother. Committed to motherhood, committed to raising children who would grow up and make a difference in the world. Not dreaming that we would run for office, like I did, or my brother who's been a federal prosecutor for 25 years, but just that she wanted-- she taught us that because we were fortunate, it was important for us to be able to give back, and make the world better, and help make other people's lives better.
And the real-- we were a secular Jewish family, but the notion of tikkun olam, repairing the world, was something that was really always instilled in us. And she really was just-- she was always there. I mean truly always there. I could not possibly have balanced work and family, and been able to raise my children-- as I'm about to be an empty nester-- to be traveling down the path that they're going to choose in life without my mom.
Then my parents moved to South Florida when my twins were born in 1999, and they helped me. They helped me juggle it all, and that has been an incredible blessing that my children have had her as an integral part of their lives for all this time.
JIM DEFEDE: Again I'm terribly sorry. And I know this is also the first chance you've really had, a chance to publicly speak about the loss of Alcee Hastings as well, which came just a few days later. And I wanted to spend a little time talking about Alcee because I knew that he was an important part of your life as well, in terms of mentorship and guiding you in Congress, and I'm sure in a number of different ways. Talk to me about Alcee.
DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Yeah, this has been a really terrible week. And having had the privilege of becoming close with Alcee Hastings, Congressman Hastings, who was a mentor who was a giving mentor. Someone who was the kind of mentor that offered you advice, even when you weren't seeking it, and I mean that in the most affectionate of ways. He would pull me aside or sit me down and say, Deb, maybe you should think things through this way, Or guide me in picking battles.
And he certainly picked them like no one else. Being a warrior for justice, standing up for the smallest of wrongs. It wasn't just-- he wasn't the-- he wasn't only someone who chose fights that grabbed headlines. He fought for improvements in neighborhoods, he fought for improvements in schools, and when he came to Broward County-- he came to Broward County as a young lawyer to really be able to shake up the horrendous, horrific injustices that existed here. As blue and progressive as Broward County is today, that's how seemingly racist, and unfair, and unjust things were here when he first came to Broward County.
The legacy that he will leave, and now he is the third in a year and a half of three truly incredible African-American civil rights Giants, in Elijah Cummings, John Lewis, and Alcee Hastings. I think will never be able to truly be measured.
JIM DEFEDE: I had a chance to speak to your former colleague, now HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, and she was remembering Alcee a bit as well. And she made the same comparison to those other pillars in the African-American community, and in Congress in general. And I asked her why she thought there were-- or why she thought there weren't more men like Alcee Hastings, and John Lewis, and the others. What made them unique in their time, and why we don't see more of that today. What would your response to that be?
DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Oh, I mean, I think that the common thread that ran through that generation of African-American leaders, but really of leaders in general from that generation, is courage. Courage, and selflessness, and the desire that-- no matter the consequence to them personally-- and I'll speak about Alcee really, really specifically. It didn't matter to him whether he had the headlines-- although he certainly earned them-- and created, because he took on cases that just no one would have chosen to.
It was really about making sure that his service, whether it was as a lawyer, or as eventually as a member of Congress, reflected getting his hands dirty and fully immersing himself in the battles for justice that would not have been fought if not for him being there. While certainly there are plenty of battles, particularly with voting rights that we have to have to wage, but there were others that joined the fight thanks to the progress that they helped forge.
And also because of the progress that they won. As a result, you have the result that they fought for. You have African-American elected officials, many more than there were then, who are able to not only fight those fights, but also fully engage, and carve their own path on issues that are not really primarily focused on winning battles around justice.
That's an incredible legacy that Alcee Hastings deserves. Just focus on that. But quite frankly, he was always about vigilance and making sure that people understood that you can't be quiet. You can't just settle for the progress that we've made already. You have to really make sure that you keep fighting because if you don't, as we've seen now with the voter suppression laws that are being pressed here in Florida and Georgia and around the country, If you just settle back and say job well done, then the oppression and repression will rear its head again as it is now.
JIM DEFEDE: I think it's always important to recognize that we're all fallible. We all make mistakes. There are-- we're human. And sometimes in painting people in a particular way we lose sight of that. And so I think it is important to remember some of the lower points in his life, including he did go through a public corruption trial. He was acquitted.
He was impeached as a federal judge and removed. I don't know if you ever-- not had conversations with him, but how do you think that experience, having gone through the criminal trial, having gone through an impeachment, how that shaped him and what that says about him in terms of how he was resilient and came back from that.
DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: We did. I mean we certainly never got into the details. That trial was, it was really back when I was in high school, well, in college. He just looked at it-- looked at those-- at the times when people came after him as really part of the battle scars you have to wage for standing up against the tyranny of the times. And he was the first African-American appointed to the federal bench from Florida.
That rubbed people the wrong way back when Jimmy Carter did that. And it was progress that many didn't want to see. So I think what he did was, he just sort of shrugged those things off, put his head down, and kept going forward, which is what he always told me, because there were a lot of battles to fight. And frankly, he didn't even talk about things like that very much because he was so not about himself.
He really never-- think about this, Jim, Alcee Hastings never wrote a book, although he was certainly-- even though he had so much in his life that had happened that he could have written about, but he wasn't interested in that kind of enrichment. He wasn't interested in shining the spotlight on himself. He was interested in using the power that gained, and he gained much of it, and respect, by helping to make sure that the other folks who sent him to Congress to be their voice knew that he was their voice every day.