Partisanship put on hold for softball game with a cause

June 19

Former congresswoman Gabby Giffords throws out the first pitch at the Congressional Women’s Softball Team game with the help of Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on June 18. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Maybe it was all those 7 a.m. practices in the rain and that toughened up the Congressional Women’s Softball Team. Maybe it was their dismal 1-3 record against the Bad News Babes, their younger media rivals, that spurred Republican and Democratic pols to a 10-5 rout Wednesday night.

Or maybe it was watching former representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), still struggling to recover after being seriously wounded during a mass shooting in Tuscon more than three years ago, throw out the ceremonial first pitch before a crowd of 1,000.

Sporting a hot-pink and navy blue “MEMBERS” baseball jersey, Giffords walked slowly onto the field with the help of her best friends, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). The pitcher’s mound had been moved closer to home plate,  Politico reported.

And Giffords, who’d been coached in pitching for the game, Wasserman Schultz told me, lobbed the ball in a sort-of-overhand-arc that landed on the plate.

Six years ago, Republican and Democratic House and Senate members, including Giffords, played their first game against female campaign staffers to benefit the Young Survival Coalition cancer charity. Game co-founder Wasserman Schultz was 41 in 2007 when she discovered a lump in her breast during a self-exam, and underwent seven surgeries. She has since pushed legislation to fund early detection and treatment for younger women, whose cancers tend to be more aggressive.

For their second game, the lawmakers asked women journalists to field a team, and the Bad News Babes have been stepping up to the plate ever since. This year’s event brought in $175,000, and pushed the six-year donation total to more than $500,000, said Kate Yglesias Houghton, who heads the congressional team’s board of directors.

But the annual exercise in bipartisan softball does more than fund a good cause.

It spawns camaraderie among women whose paths might not otherwise cross.

Wasserman Schultz, who heads the Democratic National Committee, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a rising GOP star, bonded as team co-captains. When Wasserman Schultz needed a Republican co-sponsor for a bill denying all custody rights to rapists whose victims bear their children, she chose her baseball buddy. “I wouldn’t even have known her,” Wasserman Schultz said about New Hampshire’s first female attorney general and longtime criminal prosecutor.

The softball sisterhood is particularly helpful to freshmen like Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), who arrived just six months ago after winning a special election to succeed Rep. Ed Markey, a Democrat now in the Senate.

“I am the most junior member of the minority party,” said Clark, who has used morning practice sessions to jump-start conversations with senior colleagues from both parties. “Women have shown they can work together and these are important relationships to foster. I am really glad we don’t do what the men do, Republicans versus Democrats. We play as a team.”

When she wanted support for her bill promoting infant and toddler care, “I gave it to my baseball teammates.”

On the other hand, the 2014 mid-term elections are less than five months off.  As Republicans battle to retake the Senate, and Democrats dream of long-shot control of the House,  partisan trash talk remains a fact of life.

Indeed, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told me before last year’s game that she had trouble recruiting GOP players after the 2012 cycle because DNC chair Wasserman Schultz relentlessly accused Republicans of waging a “war on women.”  There are also issues that teammates will never agree on, from abortion to U.S. intervention in Syria and Iraq.

At the end of Wednesday night’s seven-inning game, Members, Babes, congressional staffers  and assorted friends and family decamped for an after-party. Yes, an after-party, featuring beer-and-bar-food on the roof of the H Street Country Club, a funky saloon in the explosively trendy Atlas District in Northeast Washington.

Freshman Rep. Michelle Lujan-Grisham (D-N.M.), now in her second year on the team, said victory was a matter of momentum and morale. “You know we really wanted to win. It was the right kind of competitive, a little productive competitive.”

There was no argument from News Babe Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun Times. “Everyone played great. It’s just that they played better.”

Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com writer and columnist specializing in politics, culture and design. She has also written for the New York Times, Town & Country, Washingtonian and More, and is at work on a memoir. Follow her @AnnieGroer.
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