The Girls in the House

How three D.C. power women help each other stay sane.

By Annie Groer
Roommates Carolyn Maloney, Melissa Bean and Debbie Wasserman Schultz share a laugh.
Photograph: Photo by Liz Lynch/ lizlynch.com

Includes an exclusive Web extraThe Roommates Next Door

We’ve heard all the stories: how congressmen can go a little crazy with their living arrangements on Capitol Hill, far from their wives, children and constituents. Most notorious is C Street, the shorthand address for a rooming house refuge for a group of conservative Christians, mostly Republican, two of whom—Nevada senator John Ensign and former Mississippi representative Charles “Chip” Pickering—made headlines in recent years for cheating on their wives. Former Representative Mark Sanford, a regular visitor before he became South Carolina governor, sought counsel from C Streeters last summer during an adulterous romance with his Argentine soul mate.

Only a block away, Democrats have an infamous dwelling of their own, the so-called Animal House. Since the 1970s, an ever-changing cast of lawmakers—currently a pair each from the House and the Senate—have shared quarters so small that two of them sleep in the living room, and so notoriously dirty that Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, who occupies an upstairs bedroom, told ABC News he once used a golf club to kill a rat on the premises.

Neither of those setups is what you’d call normal. But even for other members of Congress—most of whom manage to find clean, conventional living situations—the requirements of serving the public by spending weekdays in D.C. are pretty surreal, especially for those who are married. Win a seat and odds are you’ll leave the family back home (where you try to squeeze in some weekend quality time with them between constituent events). Your D.C. days often start with predawn workouts, sunrise media events or breakfast meetings and may not end until final votes are cast at 10 or 11 at night. Meantime, you stay in touch with the folks at home as best you can via phone, e-mails, texting and video.

That’s how Carolyn Maloney, a Democratic congresswoman from New York City, lived for a dozen years after her 1993 swearing-in, and then she said, “Enough.” Maloney, 64, lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment while her husband, Clifton, an investment banker, stayed behind in their Upper East Side town house with the couple’s two young daughters. Maloney’s digs were far from squalid, but she grew to hate the solitude. “I’m a people person, and I really got tired of not having anyone around to talk to,” she says. In 2005, using an inheritance from her father, she bought a new, $1.5 million row house on a quiet street overlooking a park just blocks from her office. Then she went roommate hunting. Longtime colleagues already had lodgings, so she trolled the freshman class. And she got lucky.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, 43, whose heavily Democratic South Florida district had given her a 70 percent win, was a former state legislator who had spent 12 years sharing Tallahassee rentals with other female pols while her husband, banker Steve Schultz, held down the fort back in Weston, Florida, with the couple’s three children. “I am not a loner,” she says, echoing Maloney’s sentiment. “I like company if I have to be away from my family.”

In fact, Wasserman Schultz had just found a new best friend in fellow Democrat Melissa Bean, 48, a high-tech consultant and political novice who, on her second try, unseated an 18-term Republican in Chicago’s northwestern suburbs. The two newcomers discovered they had made the same decision: not to uproot their husbands and kids. (Bean’s husband, Alan, runs an executive search firm; he stays at home in Illinois with their two teenage daughters.) They both wanted roommates, and both wanted to live in a house with other mothers.

“I knew my kids would be calling with homework questions,” Bean explains. “And they would want to come visit—not just with one friend, but five.” She couldn’t wish that on “someone who isn’t a mom—or who was a mother 20 years ago,” she says, “I just wanted to make sure it wouldn’t be imposing.”

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