Meet the Bernie-Endorsed Law Professor Trying to Unseat the DNC Chair

Tim Canova is taking on Debbie Wasserman Schultz, with help from the man who thinks she's rigged the presidential race against him

Tim Conova, Debbie Wasserman Schultz's opponent in this November's House race, recently raised a quarter of a million dollars in less than 24 hours after being endorsed by Bernie Sanders. Credit: Wilfredo Lee/AP

Running against the head of the Democratic National Convention is a pretty lonely exercise: You don't get into the race expecting a lot of high-profile Democrats will flock to you with endorsements. But then again, most DNC heads aren't as controversial as Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who's so disliked that there's been talk in some corners of Congress of ousting her before the Democratic National Convention in July.

Still, it felt like shots-fired this weekend when Bernie Sanders declared he preferred the relatively unknown Florida law professor Tim Canova to Wasserman Schultz in the battle to represent Florida's 23rd district. Sanders also put out an appeal to his massive fundraising network for donations to benefit Canova's campaign. It was an easy ask for many Sanders supporters who feel Wasserman Schultz rigged the election for Hillary Clinton. (Wasserman Schultz, who was campaign co-chair of Clinton's 2008 campaign, says at every opportunity that she and the DNC are "neutral" in the Democratic race; other DNC members, like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, have publicly accused her of bias toward Clinton.)

The Sanders endorsement was a boon for Canova, who raised almost a quarter of a million dollars in less than 24 hours. But who is Canova, other than the man gunning for Democratic enemy number one? According to his campaign bio, he's picked avocados on a kibbutz in Israel and taught a workshop on reforming the Federal Reserve at Occupy L.A., and enjoys cooking, running on the beach and practicing Pilates. Rolling Stone caught up with the law professor to learn more.

Tell me about the moment you decided to run for office.
I never thought I was going to run for political office, even though I've been involved in politics for many years. I'd been a legislative aide for the late U.S. Sen.Paul Tsongas, Democrat from Massachusetts, and over the years I've advised and volunteered for a number of political campaigns and spearheaded some grassroots campaigns. But I didn't think I'd be a candidate. 

[After repeatedly lobbying against the TPP and feeling blown off by Wasserman Schultz's staff], there was frustration, and you could say the frustration peaked when Wasserman Schultz was the only Democratic lawmaker in Florida who voted to fast-track the TPP. In the course of this I learned that she had taken over $300,000 in campaign contributions from big corporate interests that were lobbying for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She had only taken about $20,000 from groups opposed to the TPP, and of course groups opposed to the TPP don't have much money — environmentalists and labor folks. [Although Canova has repeated this allegation to several media outlets, Rolling Stone could not independently verify the claim, and his campaign did not respond to multiple requests  for the precise source of the information.] I started to look more closely at her record and saw this wasn't an aberration, that she has been taking millions of dollars from the largest Wall Street banks and corporations and voting their interests — it seemed so contrary to her public image as a progressive. So throughout the fall I was thinking about it, and I didn't really come to a decision until December, and jumped in the race in early January.

Was your decision to run motivated by a sense that she was favoring Hillary Clinton in her scheduling of the Democratic debates?
I was not happy with the fact that there were not many debates, and it certainly seemed to me that she was trying to put her finger on the scales to harm Bernie Sanders' campaign. I recall in December the [NGP] VAN database was being denied to the Sanders campaign. It didn't last long — just a couple of days — but it was one of those seminal moments. [Ed note: As CNN reported in December, the Sanders campaign was cut off after it "exploited a software error to improperly access confidential voter information collected by Hillary Clinton's team."] So, certainly that got my attention too, and certainly that did not endear me to her. I was already unhappy with her representation as a Congresswoman for the district.

In his email endorsing you, Bernie Sanders mentioned a number of issues you see eye-to-eye on — the Trans-Pacific Partnership, campaign-finance reform, free tuition at public colleges — but are those the most important issues to you? And are there areas where you disagree with him?
A number of folks have asked this question almost like, Are you trying to be opportunistic — to just jump on Bernie's bandwagon? And I don't see it that way at all. I've got a paper trail — articles, law review articles, book chapters, newspaper editorials — that go back literally to the early Eighties, and I've been whining about a lot of this stuff since then. I see myself as a New Deal Democrat in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. That base of the party, where the heart and the soul of the party is, has been ignored by this corporate drift in the party, and it's not surprising that Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and a lot of others agree on an awful lot of these issues, such as single-payer [health care].

I would say [one of] the real important issues for me is to regulate Wall Street. And it's not an abstraction here in this district; Florida has a rampant payday loan industry, and this has been a big issue in the campaign. Wasserman Schultz has been pushing a Republican bill in the House that will prevent President Obama's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from regulating payday loans for a two-year period. That Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created by the Dodd Frank Act, the Wall Street Reform Act of 2010, that I worked on not just as an adviser to Sanders but to other congressional staff.

These payday loans here in Florida, they basically prey on poor, vulnerable people, and they end up trapping them in a cycle of debt — we're talking about 300 percent interest rates and higher. [Wasserman Schultz defends her position] saying Florida has a great payday lending law from when she was a state representative. It [was passed in] 2001. I mean, really? Seven years before the financial collapse, and it doesn't have a cap on interest rates. It's a terrible law. The Florida Consumer Alliance, La Raza, the NAACP — all kind of civil rights groups have condemned this law, and she is defending it. She says there is not an alternative; she says the only alternative there is is real loan sharks.

And you disagree?
What I've been advocating for some years is postal banking. This country's postal system had checking accounts for low-income people, for anyone, from the New Deal right up through the Sixties. Postal banking exists in Japan, I think Italy, Spain — a lot of countries have postal banking. Elizabeth Warren has called for postal banking. The postal system would provide checking accounts for customers so that low-income folks don't have to go to a check-cashing joint and give 10 percent of the check over. I focus on how the Federal Reserve is funding these Wall Street banks — giving them access to credit at near zero percent interest rates — and then those Wall Street banks give lines of credit to the payday lenders. They're involved in this is one way or another. Why doesn't the Federal Reserve provide near zero percent interest to the postal service? The postal system doesn't need to make a huge profit and gouge consumers the way the payday lending industry and Wall Street does.

You mentioned that you and Bernie worked together on the Dodd Frank bill. Did you have a close relationship before he endorsed you?
In 2010 I worked with some of his staff, some of the staff of a number of other members of the House, on the legislation that became the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform Act. In October 2011, I was asked to serve on an advisory committee Sen. Sanders put together on reforming Wall Street and the Federal Reserve. But I don't think I had spoken to Sen. Sanders in four years. When I jumped into the race I had a number of people say, You should really try to get in touch with Sanders' campaign, your agendas are so similar, maybe he'll endorse you. And I never once made an overture. Not once. I assumed that no candidate or even elected official would be able to come out and endorse me.

I have had a number of folks — candidates and elected officials — who have been helpful behind the scenes, but it takes a lot to get out there publicly and endorse an opponent to the head of the Democratic National Committee. So I never thought it was going to happen, quite frankly.

So his campaign reached out to you?
Yes. I did not reach out to them. They reached out to me.

Were there conversations about what kind of form his support would take?
I got a call on Saturday from our media guy saying Sanders had just done an interview with [CNN reporter] Jake Tapper that was going to air the next morning in which Sanders said, when he was asked the question point-blank, of course he would favor me over Wasserman Schultz because our agendas were so aligned. That's how I found out about the endorsement.

I can imagine it presents a unique set of challenges, running against the head of the DNC.
On the positive side, we've gotten an awful lot of donations from around the country [and] here in Florida. One thing that astounded me at the end of the first quarter [was that] she's been a Congresswoman for 12 years and I'd been a candidate for less than 90 days, and I had more individual donations in the state of Florida than she did. I'm like, wow. It makes sense. Her donor base is mostly big corporations, or a lot of it is.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.