A man and his plan

Dan Dahlkemper fondly remembers the first gift bag he got as a congressional spouse — not just for its contents, but for what it inspired him to do. 

His wife, Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.), had just been elected to the freshman class of the 111th Congress, and Dan came away from one of his initial spousal events toting a goodie bag that even had his name on it.

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Inside? A pink purse with a pearl handle, nail polish and a keychain.

He called Rep. Tim Walz’s (D-Minn.) wife, Gwen, his congressional-spouse mentor (or “big sister,” as they used to be called, he says), and the two shared a laugh. Gwen Walz had warned him even before the event, “If you get nail polish, it’s not my fault.”

Dan Dahlkemper, 52, blamed no one. Instead he decided to use the well-meaning but decidedly feminine gift as impetus to run for the president of the freshman-spouses club.

“I really didn’t have any idea about getting involved until that occurred,” he says.

Not only did Dan Dahlkemper win, making him the first male president of a congressional spouses group since the first was launched in 1908, but last week, he led the organization in unveiling its class project, a campaign to fight childhood obesity. By many accounts, his presidency so far has been successful, with his wife — who credits him for breaking the “pink ceiling” — pledging her full support and many of his associates taking every chance they can to gush over him.

Dan Dahlkemper maintains a sense of humor about his leadership role in a traditionally female-populated and -run group, joking with The Hill in a recent interview that he has the pink purse in safekeeping. And he opened last week’s event revealing the childhood-obesity project by curtsying and saying, “I wore my best dress today for this occasion.” (He, in fact, was in a charcoal suit, white dress shirt and yellow tie.)

But Dahlkemper takes his post seriously, too, saying he saw an opening to modernize a group that has for a long time included at least a handful of congressional husbands. 

“Change comes from within,” he says, drawing a parallel to the congressional campaign of his wife, who, prior to getting elected, had no experience in political office. “You don’t change things by criticizing. You change things by being involved.”

Despite his inexperience as a political spouse, public life seems to come naturally to Dan Dahlkemper. He says he brought “chocolate meltaways” from a store near their Erie, Pa., home to one of the first freshman-spouses meetings, which endeared him to the other group members. He then announced he would run for president on a “fun platform,” explaining that they’d have a lot of it if he were in charge. As president, he seems to easily keep track of the 50-plus members of his group, sprinkling into conversation tidbits like “the Kratovils are expecting their fifth [child]” and calling nearly every member he mentions — Rep. Bill Posey’s (R-Fla.) wife, Katie; Rep. Mike Coffman’s (R-Colo.) wife, Cynthia; Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi’s (D-Puerto Rico) wife, Maria Elena — a friend.

“He is so good-natured, so easy to be with … so enthusiastic,” says Virginia Griffith, Rep. Parker Griffith’s (R-Ala.) wife and the group’s treasurer.

Kathy Dahlkemper says she backed her husband’s bid for the group’s presidency 100 percent, also seeing that “men spouses haven’t been taken seriously in the past.”

Dan Dahlkemper says his leadership role has indeed been a lot of fun. But the year hasn’t been quite what he expected. He works full-time in Erie, running his family’s landscape-architect business, and quickly realized many other spouses spend most of their time back in their respective districts, holding down jobs, raising families or both. He let go of his initial vision of regular outings to museums and other such activities and has instead helped organize group meetings around larger events for which members would be more inclined to come to Washington anyway. (Last week’s project unveiling, for instance, coincided with spouses’ annual lunch with first lady Michelle Obama, who has also taken on childhood obesity and with whom they’ll be collaborating.)

Simultaneously, Dan Dahlkemper had to adjust to actually being a congressional spouse. In the last year, he has had to take over his wife’s roles in their family business and the arboretum they created. He also helped care for Kathy Dahlkemper’s parents after they were diagnosed with cancer, planned one of his daughter’s weddings — “typically that’s the mother of the bride,” he says with a smile — and salvaged the business’s office after a July flood left it under two feet of water.

“It’s really been a huge transition,” he says. But rather than complain, he channels his own experience to offer support to other spouses. He says he and his wife are lucky their five children, who range in age from 20 to 30, are all adults. His “heart really goes out” to the congressional couples raising young families, he says.

“It’s not an easy life,” Dan Dahlkemper says. “It’s a life of sacrifice to the country — another form of patriotism.”

Ultimately, Dan Dahlkemper sees the role of the freshman-spouses group as one of support. He expects the childhood-obesity initiative — a natural for him to propose,  because his wife is a registered dietitian — to give the group a new energy and purpose. 

Politics has yet to taint their dealings — “We don’t always agree with our spouses,” he observes diplomatically — and he predicts that, even though November’s elections will almost surely change the makeup of the organization, they won’t split its bonds.

“I think we’ve forged friendships that will be there,” he says.