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Detroit — The chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee took aim at the top 2016 Republican presidential contenders in a speech Saturday night to Michigan Democrats, zeroing in on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

"It's fitting that Ted Cruz was the first Republican to jump into the presidential race, because he's been their de facto leader in Congress for the past two years," Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said at the Michigan Democratic Party's annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner at Cobo Center. "And he's the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the Republican Party."

Wasserman Schultz kicked off her keynote speech to more than 1,000 Democratic party activists and elected officials by continuing a celebration of the careers of former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and former U.S. Rep. John Dingell, who both retired from Congress last year. Democrats spent much of the night honoring Levin and Dingell's decades of service.

But the DNC chairwoman used the later half of her half-hour address at Cobo Center to go after the top Republican presidential hopefuls.

"Marco Rubio says he's a leader with fresh ideas," Wasserman Schultz said of the Florida senator. "But then he ran away from his immigration reform package when the right-wing tea partiers put the slightest bit of pressure on him."

"If you cave that easily on an issue so vital to our families, our economy and our national security, and that's supposedly is so important to you, how are you going to handle being the leader of the free world? I think that says a lot about Marco Rubio's leadership."

Wasserman Schultz threw the crowd of Democrats plenty of partisan red meat, accusing Republicans of being "obsessively focused on an array of divisive social issues" and "worshiping at the altar of the tea party."

"Rand Paul, the guy who is supposed to be broadening the GOP's appeal, he spent the first week of his campaign arguing with me about denying women the right to make their own health care decisions," Wasserman Schultz said of the junior Kentucky senator, who was in Grand Rapids on Monday.

"Hey Rand, just between us — you know one person on the ballot in 2016 and another who's trying to get there — that's not how you get women voters," Wasserman Schultz added.

Wasserman Schultz also lambasted Paul for coming to Detroit in 2013 to help the Michigan Republican Party open an African-American voter outreach office in the Democratic stronghold.

"Are you kidding me? I thought it was a joke," Wasserman Schultz said. "How do you expect to broaden the GOP's appeal to African Americans when you voiced opposition to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act? When you believe in a businesses 'right to discriminate.' I'll tell you, you don't. That's not how you extend equality and opportunity."

Paul has said he supports the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 ending discrimination against African Americans. But Paul also has made comments in the past suggesting private business owners should retain the right to serve who they want to serve.

The annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner centered around honoring the work and accomplishments of Dingell and Levin.

Levin predicted the growing income gap between the middle class and wealthiest Americans would be a central theme for Democrats in next year's election.

"That issue, closing that income gap is going to be a center piece of next year's presidential campaign," Levin said.

While both men reflected on their time in Congress, Dingell mixed in some current events in reference to voter defeat of the Proposal 1 road funding plan on Tuesday.

"If you didn't know the difference between Republicans and Democrats, you learned it on the drive in," Dingell said. "You drove in on the roads that the Republicans can't repair."

Proposal 1 was placed on the ballot by the Legislature in December as part of a bipartisan agreement between Gov. Rick Snyder, Republican leaders in the majority and the Democratic minority leaders.

To get Democratic votes for putting the sales tax increase on the ballots, Republicans tacked on new spending for schools, cities, public transit and an expanded tax credit for the poor. But political critics and voters cited spending not related to road repairs as a reason why they voted down the ballot proposal.

In the wake of Tuesday's stunning 80 percent "no" vote on Proposal 1, Snyder and GOP legislative leaders have vowed to come up with an alternative plan to raise an extra $1.2 billion annually for roads.

Lon Johnson, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said voter defeat of Proposal 1 presents a new "opportunity" for Democrats to leverage the GOP majority.

"Democrats can and must propose a bold, detailed solution to fix our roads," Johnson said. "To fix our roads, the governor and this Legislature will need our votes. And for our votes, they must accept our ideas. Or Plan B is you're fired."

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Twitter.com/ChadLivengood

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