How lawmakers entertain

In the hypernetworking atmosphere of Capitol Hill, a place teeming with lobbyists and fundraisers, pleasure has often fused with congressional business. But some lawmakers, tired of the Capitol Hill Club, are shedding tradition to plan events that mesh with their personalities and give guests more than just face time.
Elana Schor
From Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-Fla.) setup in his living room at the congressional block party held April 5.

“At the end of our time in Congress, we’re going to look back and say, ‘Hey, this was a significant time in life. There has to be some moments of fun with people you’re working with on serious issues,’” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). “That’s part of the American spirit.”

The ninth-term California congressman is a qualified adviser on how to put the “fun” back in fundraiser. Rohrabacher’s yearly tequila-and-chili party, founded in the early 1980s during his days as a White House speechwriter, is legendary in conservative circles, although the event has changed since its heyday.

Rohrabacher still cooks a mean pot of chili for his co-workers and associates but has switched from regular beef to exotic game supplied by a few House hunters. Reps. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.), Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) have all been asked to provide prey for Rohrabacher’s bash.

The fun-loving, surfing congressman doesn’t use his own house for the party. He borrows the spacious yard of Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley, a former aide to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.) took over hosting duties one year, but “unfortunately, we spilled margaritas on his lawn, which permanently killed the grass. … That’s how strong our margaritas are,” Rohrabacher recalled.

The location and theme of members’ parties are just as crucial as a steady flow of mixed drinks. Lawmakers with Washington homes more inviting than the once-ubiquitous bachelor apartment often use their residences to hold official and unofficial get-togethers.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) will offer her district’s brilliant local color at her Night in Key West party tomorrow, held at the intimate C Street town house she shares with her husband, Dexter. Arroz con pollo and other Cuban and Spanish delicacies are on the menu, and Latin-infused music is on the play list.

“I do like the homey atmosphere,” Ros-Lehtinen mused, though her choice of venue didn’t come from any urge to break out the guest towels and cocktail napkins.

“I wish I could say that, but for me it’s just to bring down costs,” said Ros-Lehtinen, whose savvy planning has made her one of Congress’s champion fundraisers. “If you go to the Capitol Hill Club, it’s a great location, members love to have events there, but you have to pay a lot.”

Members comfortable enough to let strangers mill around their mantels are also more likely to give a theme to their gatherings, or to hire catering consultants who set a stylish tone. At the block party hosted on D Street S.E. this month by five congressional neighbors, Beth Hamed of Arlington’s A Thyme & Place made sure the menus clicked, not clashed.

Rep. Nancy Johnson’s (R-Conn.) spread featured caviar tarts, scallops wrapped in bacon, cilantro crab cakes and fruit, all to match her martini selections. Spring rolls, a complement of cheeses and miniature beef Wellingtons with horseradish sauce set off the bold flavors of Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-Fla.) favorite Rioja red wines.

“All of them have really nice homes and nice kitchens,” Hamed said of her electable clients. “They all like to show off their china, and I rarely bring my own.”

Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.) was a late addition to the block party, dishing out coffee and black-and-white mousse cake to complete the guests’ culinary journey. Ryun’s wife, Anne, and son Ned stayed away from pricey planners to give the night a touch of the congressman’s folksy charm, including red- and blue-frosted elephant cookies handmade by a constituent.

“It’s very warm and inviting to have people into your home rather than in a public meeting place,” Anne Ryun said. “Among the congressional families, we do a lot of getting together among ourselves.”

Favorite food can become a theme of its own, as with Rep. Jim Kolbe’s (R-Ariz.) Southwestern fiestas, which include empanadas, fresh guacamole and Kolbe’s own margarita recipe. (A drink-off competition between Kolbe and Rohrabacher has yet to be brainstormed.) Fellow Arizonan GOP Rep. Rick Renzi times his parties to the release of new wines on his homegrown Renzi Vino label.

“You get a really good turnout,” Renzi said, “and everyone gets a signed bottle” of the congressman’s cabernets and chardonnays, which are bottled in the golden hills of his district. Despite the high concept, “I’m not a very good planner,” Renzi added.

Renzi’s partying heart lies in the Freedom Bash he holds every Fourth of July, when the extended family flocks to his Fairfax farm for games and fireworks. Summer is the season for elaborate shindigs, when heat waves and the suspended legislative session keep many away from the office.

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) continued his tradition of bringing the beach to the Hill at the April 21 Feeney Spring Break Bash, held at the American Legion hall a few blocks from the Capitol. His genuine interest in entertaining helps Feeney get into the spirit.

“We try to have some fun with it,” Feeney said. “It’s for a young crowd. We encourage people to bring shorts and flip-flops, what you’d wear to a Jimmy Buffett concert.” Tickets cost a fraction of the hefty usual prices, and beach balls were tossed around to set the sun-worshipping mood.

“The most boring part of fundraising is making call after call after call, and then showing up at a chicken dinner,” Feeney said. So he proudly hosts events that reflect his easygoing personality, from a shark-fishing excursion to sports-watching nights.

Democratic lawmakers have assumed a vocal minority role on the social scene as well as in the chamber. Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) held it up for his party with a gumbo gathering to celebrate Inauguration Day, and Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) will host a massive event tomorrow.

The party is called Studio 53, a disco pun on Corzine’s bid to become his state’s 53rd governor. Max Weinberg, bandleader on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, will help Corzine generate late-night buzz while guests interact with the hands-on exhibits at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City.

Thankfully, the dance-heavy party won’t be soundtracked entirely by “Stayin’ Alive” — planners said music would be “disco and beyond.”

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) fondly remembers the brunches he would throw after Congressional Black Caucus weekends, when the doors of his large home in Northwest Washington would be open to colleagues and thinkers of all types. The genial Harlem native is decidedly less fond of fundraisers, calling them “no fun.”

Perhaps Democratic entertaining has yet to recover from the loss of Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), who retired last year but leaves a dizzying legacy of revelry. Breaux helped organize memorable galas for the Democratic conventions in Boston and Los Angeles, the former a beach party at the city aquarium and the latter on the Paramount Studios lot.

“In Washington, in political events, the concept of doing something different is a big challenge because there are so many cocktail receptions that are so similar,” Breaux said. “It’s difficult to break out of the mode.”

Breaux’s larger-than-life personality helped him break a big congressional party commandment: Never invite the press. He also never shied away from logistical challenges, organizing Mardi Gras events that lasted for entire weekends and booking musical acts such as Ziggy Marley and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

One locale that rarely saw floats and streamers was Breaux’s home, where “we had small dinners” but little else, he said. “You get invited to an awful lot of things, to so many receptions and functions. By the time you’re done with all that, you’re sort of exhausted.”

Rep. John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) own beach parties have been rolling on for 14 years, lately at the waterfront restaurant Cantina Marina. He has acquired more fame for the warehouse parties that become annual hot tickets, most recently at the Republican convention in New York City, but Boehner said he has no hand in the planning.

“Some of my friends did” organize the legendary fetes, Boehner explained. “They’re becoming known as my parties, but I was just there.”

He did offer sound advice for legislators looking to take Washington’s formidable social scene by storm:

“You have a good party and people tend to show up for the next one. You’d better make sure the first one’s a good one.”