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.”

Maloney, of course, had no idea her two colleagues were in the market. She just announced her available rooms at an orientation session for freshman spouses and Wasserman Schultz’s husband Steve was in the audience. He promptly volunteered his wife and Bean, and soon afterward the two newly elected congresswomen moved into what Maloney now calls her sorority house.

The chatelaine has the top-floor master suite, dominated by a massive Victorian bedstead and mirror; a nearby space doubles as her office/guest room. Bean and Wasserman Schultz share the second floor, which includes two bedrooms with en suite baths and a laundry room. All three use the open main level: a living and dining area furnished with French gilt mirrors, a Victorian sofa, Oriental rugs and Asian art (all Maloney family antiques); a cozy TV room leading to a back porch; and a gourmet kitchen with a Viking range (rarely used) and a refrigerator (nearly empty).

“We can’t keep milk fresh,” Bean says. “We have frozen food for the kids when they visit—pizza, spaghetti—and we’ve got water, soda and microwave popcorn.” She then ticks off guest sleeping spaces as though touting a beach rental: “Debbie has a pullout love seat for when her kids visit. I have a queen-size bed; one of my daughters can crash with me, and the other sleeps on the AeroBed. When it’s inflated I can’t open my dresser drawers. There’s a pullout couch in the living room. Carolyn has an office with a daybed, so that’s where her daughter sleeps. We’ve had our husbands over, too, and then mom and dad sleep in the bed. There are times when it’s really crowded.”

Maloney won’t say what she charges (though she calls the setup “a great deal” for her tenants). But the real payoff—for all three of them—has been emotional rather than financial. The arrangement has turned out to be rewarding in ways none of the players could have imagined five years ago when they began their communal living adventure.

Of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, only 73 are women—and “a very small minority of us are moms with [young] kids,” Wasserman Schultz says. So, to her, their home “really is like a sisterhood. We three are the only congresswomen who live together. We rely on each other.” That means everything from averting a mini clothing crisis—“I have raided Carolyn’s drawer for pantyhose when I’ve had runs,” confesses Bean—to sharing confidences about husbands and children, from brainstorming on legislation and fund-raising to providing emergency babysitting.

Wasserman Schultz is the most partisan politician of the three; Bean, the most conservative and business-focused. Maloney, who cut her teeth on New York’s City Council, was an invaluable resource for the newcomers. “So much of the time, we come home and get her advice—‘Who should I talk to about getting this bill moving if I’m trying to get the opposition from an industry to back off?’—Carolyn’s experience doing these things for 18 years has been tremendous for Melissa and me. She’s such an incredible legislator.” After a second’s pause: “I think we are all good legislators.” Maloney says simply, “We mentor each other.”

A typical day at what the National Journal has dubbed the home of the Member Moms begins with the stirring of early riser Maloney. Trim, fit, given to designer suits, she hits the House gym by 6:30 for an hour-long tae kwon do workout (she’s a black belt), fortified by the signature green drink she whips up, using spinach, celery, an apple, kale and dark lettuce.

“I am sure it is very healthful,” deadpans the rangy Bean. “I just can’t get past the look of it.”

Maloney tries to be in bed by 10, which is often when the other two begin unwinding. “Nearly every night, Melissa and I pop popcorn and pour on massive amounts of butter,” Wasserman Schultz says. “We sit on one of our beds and talk about our husbands, our kids, our staff, the complaints and the triumphs of the day.”

“The pace is just so crazy,” notes Bean, in nearly identical language. “We can talk about the kids, the House, the legislation, the politics, world affairs—whatever it might be—and some of what we deal with, unique circumstances we can all relate to that in a way some of our other good friends might not be able to.” Sometimes Maloney does get up and join in. “It’s especially important to me that these two other people can completely understand,” Wasserman Schultz adds. “No one else gets it. As sympathetic and empathetic as others are, it’s not like Melissa and Carolyn.”

For nearly a year Maloney got up at two each morning to work for a few hours on Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated, her 2008 book about how women are still getting shortchanged. Then she’d go back to sleep until six. “What I see as the best part of living with two women whom I adore and admire is having a sounding board on the real-life issues we confront,” Maloney says. “Like all women in America, we are trying to juggle our public and our private lives, the difficulty of getting home for a child’s doctor appointment or school play, the balance between work and family.”

The pull between work and home rankles, says Bean, who was absent from Capitol Hill for a week in late 2009 because her husband and younger daughter came down with the flu. “Members of Congress almost never have dinner with their families. Sometimes we’re in Washington Monday through Friday, sometimes Sunday through Thursday or Tuesday to Friday. Debbie and I would always go to the speaker [Nancy Pelosi] and say, ‘If you’re going to have only a four-day legislative week, convene the House on Tuesday and give us the Monday dinner with the kids.’ Teens don’t want to spend their Friday nights with us. The speaker gets that.”

In December 2007, Wasserman Schultz learned just how critical a support group could be when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. But she kept the circle small; other than family members, she told only a few key aides and close friends. She maintained secrecy, she says, because she didn’t want to be known as the congresswoman battling cancer.

“I just wanted to be known as the congresswoman,” she says.

She detected the lump early, but when she learned that she carried the breast cancer gene sometimes found in women of Eastern European Jewish descent, Wasserman Schultz underwent seven surgeries over the next year, including a double mastectomy and removal of her ovaries to protect against future malignancies.

A tiny, energetic blonde with blue eyes, curly hair and a fondness for black high-top sneakers, she scheduled her operations in Washington-area hospitals during House recesses and never missed a vote. She didn’t tell her children about the cancer until she got a clean bill of health in March 2009. She told them a few days before she went public with her story. “I wanted to be able to say, ‘Mommy was sick but now she’s fine.’ ” There was no chemo or radiation, but she will take Tamoxifen for the next few years.

Four months after telling her story, Wasserman Schultz broke her leg sliding into second base at a breast cancer charity softball game pitting congresswomen against young female House staffers. Her 10-year-old twin boy and girl, who were visiting, saw her carried off the field to an ambulance; an aide brought them to the hospital. Once again, she assured them Mommy was fine—and reminded everyone else she had been safe at second. The next morning, she hobbled into an 8:30 meeting on crutches and spent the next few weeks with her right leg in a hot-pink cast.

Melissa Bean was part of the circle that knew about the cancer diagnosis; Carolyn Maloney was not. “Melissa and I are just very close friends,” Wasserman Schultz explains. “And what I especially learned from all the breast cancer survivors I’ve spoken to is, you do need a support network. She and I have talked about so many things. She was a tremendous help. All my treatment was here, and without having my husband around it was very important for me to have someone I could talk to.”

Maloney didn’t learn about Wasserman Schultz’s cancer until her room-mate went public. “One time her mother came for the weekend, and it was very unusual. I later found out it was at the time when she had an operation,” she says, adding that she has no problem with having been left out of this particular loop.

“With a trauma that personal, people are entitled to make decisions that work for them,” she says.

Maloney’s own personal tragedy struck on a Friday night in late September. While at a dinner in New York, she learned that Clifton, her husband of 31 years, had died on a Himalayan trek just hours after climbing the world’s sixth-highest peak. The news became public the next day. “Melissa and Debbie were wonderful,” she recalls. “They came to the funeral.” Afterward, Maloney stayed in Manhattan for her first two weeks of mourning and “they were on the phone.” Her two roommates continue to fuss over her, she says, because “we are friends, our husbands were friends. Our kids know each other. We’re like a big extended family.”

All three women insist that in more than five years together, the only real friction occurred during the 2008 presidential primaries. Maloney and Wasserman Schultz were fervent Hillary Clinton supporters; Bean was pro-Obama. “It was antagonistic,” Bean admits. “There was some passion on both sides. It was definitely touchy. I was one of Barack’s earliest supporters, and Debbie did a lot of press for Hillary. Deb would come home from a TV appearance and I’d say, ‘You looked great, you sounded great and I didn’t agree with anything you said . . . ’ ”

“We all understood; Melissa and Obama are from Illinois,” Maloney says. When he got the nomination, the Clintonites quickly shifted candidates. “It was so much better when we were on the same side,” Maloney adds.

If 2009 was the crucible year—Wasserman Schultz going public with her cancer and Maloney losing her husband— 2010 is the political challenge, since all three women are up for reelection. Midterm elections are typically when the sitting president’s party suffers heavy Congressional losses, so they are all running hard and will spend more time in their districts, and therefore less time with each other.

“You don’t really come here to make friends,” Bean says of her legislative life. “You come here to get the job done.

“This was a bonus.”

Annie Groer has covered Congress, the White House and political gossip for 25 years for the Orlando Sentinel and the Washington Post. She writes for PoliticsDaily.com and is at work on a memoir.

Originally published in the March 2010 MORE.
 
Web Extra: The Roommates Next Door

By Annie Groer

Next door to the Maloney household, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nevada) shares her home with her office scheduler, Joanne Rider (whom she’s known since junior high); Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), who rents the basement; and Rep. John Larson (D-Connecticut), whom she calls “the best roommate on the planet because he’s gone before I get up, I’m asleep before he comes home and he’s quiet as a mouse.” But despite her joke, one wonders if Berkley doesn’t long for a little more quality time with her housemates, or her block-mates. Both Maloney and Berkley, separately and unbidden, expressed delight over a spontaneous early-morning encounter most of us would take for granted.  
    
“My door was open, I saw Carolyn, I said, ‘Hi neighbor, come on in!’ and we had a great conversation,” Berkley recalls, grinning widely.

“There we were in our housecoats, sitting in her kitchen, drinking coffee,” Maloney muses with her own wide smile. “It was like being in a small town and visiting with a girlfriend.”

Some 4.5 miles west of the kaffeeklatsch, on Georgetown’s Potomac riverfront, three longtime Chicago pals who are among the most influential members of the Obama inner circle have their own form of D.C. dorm life. Presidential counselor Valerie Jarrett, White House social secretary Desiree Rogers and the first lady’s chief of staff, Susan Sher, rent separate condos in the same swank building.

“It’s been tremendously helpful to have this support group when you come to a new city, particularly at my age, without my husband,” Sher told the Chicago Tribune.  

First Published Tue, 2010-02-09 16:55

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