Off the clock and it’s still party time on Capitol Hill with dueling happy hours

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Brian Phillips, a co-founder of the First Friday happy hour at Union Pub, is 43 years old. He is 33. This version has been corrected.

June 5, 2011

Here, on a red-brick block of Capitol Hill, are the people who want to steer the country after their bosses have worn out the clutch. Here are the people who let their livers and libidos lead them to the like-minded, who pursue connections that become coalitions that become movements that become presidencies. (After a mini-pitcher of sangria, anything seems possible.)

Separated by a salon, a sushi place and an ideological chasm are the dueling happy hours. One conservative, one progressive. One long-standing, the other brand-new. One in a hey-bro, populist pub, the other in a mod, sunken lounge.

Leave your prejudices at the door.

Find new ones inside.

Overheard at the conservative happy hour First Friday at Union Pub: “I’ll be over at the Faith and Freedom conference tomorrow. . . . They beat Notre Dame this year. . . . When Snowmageddon happened two years ago, I had a reservation at Minibar. . . . The Weiner jokes are overwhelming me right now.”

Overheard at the progressive happy hour First Thursday at Lounge 201 the night before: “I’m also a PhD student. . . . I’m a lawyer by day but . . . We lost the message war! . . . Libertarianism doesn’t make sense. How can you abolish everything? . . . How drunk do I have to be to say, ‘Hey, Ron Paul intern’?”

First Friday formed in 2006 when a posse of Heritage Foundation co-workers ambled across Massachusetts Avenue NE to Union Pub. They desired a social setting with no strings attached (no guest speaker, no book reading, no dress code or registration or cover charge), so they formed their own.

“At other events you’d be having a good time, mingling, having a beer, and then all of a sudden it’d get quiet and Dick Armey would stand up and pontificate on the future of America — that sucks,” says one of the First Friday charter members, Brian Phillips, 33, communications director for Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). “But if Dick Armey wants to come hang out, that’s great.”

First Friday lassoed big GOP names (Boehner, Steele, Newt) for guest appearances — nothing formal, just: “Oh hey, there’s Grover Norquist” — and word of mouth buoyed attendance until it became a consistent safe house for conservatives adrift in a blindingly liberal city.

First Thursday began two weeks ago in reaction to First Friday’s popularity and to reinvigorate the idling movement that elected Barack Obama in 2008. The organizers of First Thursday have boasted that they can out-network the conservatives. Whatever that means. (How is networking prowess tabulated? By the frequency with which one uses the word “networking”?)

“We’re flattered,” says Rich Counts, 26, current co-host of First Friday. “Anytime you see someone trying to pattern after what you’re doing, it’s a sign you’re doing things the right way.”

At 7 p.m. during the inaugural First Thursday, its creator, Jim McBride, 36, stands on a leopard-print ottoman in Lounge 201 and shouts his stump speech over Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends” in front of a giant flat-screen TV showing coverage of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

“There are the First Fridays that the conservatives host — that’s one of the big parts of any movement,” says McBride, a freelance PR consultant who lives in Falls Church and is trying to establish a local umbrella organization for progressives (under the banner Network for Progress). “We need creative ways to mobilize. We need to come together and learn from each other. We can be right about the issues all day long, but we need to build a social- and media-based movement.”

Since First Thursday was announced, First Friday revamped its Web site and Facebook page and launched a Twitter account. Those Web favors were supplied by Ford C. O’Connell, a Republican strategist who, 24 hours after McBride’s opening salvo, sits in a booth at Union Pub in a black suit and white dress shirt.

“We refurbished First Friday’s Web presence, since the Democrats decided controlling Congress wasn’t enough,” says O’Connell, 35, his mouth curling into a sly smile. “They want to control the social scene as well.”

Or at least the tiny social scene of niche cocktail parties on the 200 block of Massachusetts Avenue, a strip of commerce one block north of the Hart Senate Office Building.

The happy hours look and feel identical on the surface: a mob of racially diverse 20- and 30-somethings prowling for discounted booze and lucrative conversation that may lead to a new and better job (or, simply, a job). The ritual is as old as freedom.

Sure, there are more pearls, tailored suits and sunglasses-atop-buzz cuts at First Friday, and, yes, there are more JanSports, ruffles and vintage eyewear at First Thursday. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. But what else do these self-sorted happy hours tell us about the state of the union?

The right, the conservatives say, is fractured but looking for unity and excited about the wide-open potential for 2012. The left needs to recapture the electoral fervor of ’08, the progressives say, and then hold Obama (who’s drifted center) to his original campaign promises. This is not news. It simply is.

“I was righteously angry after Boehner became speaker of the House,” says Sonia Khan, 23, who’s looking for work and hoping to find a lead at Lounge 201. “We’re recent college grads with high GPAs from prestigious institutions. Why are we unemployed?”

Which leads us to an informal poll, since we’re all here holding our vodka crans and our equally strong opinions. What’s issue No. 1 for the country?

Thursday survey says: Job creation. Exit strategy for the wars. Education reform.

Friday survey says: Job creation. Entitlement reform. Deficit reduction.

The dueling happy hours are united on job creation as issue No. 1! (They’re also united on pleats still being a legitimate option for dress pants.)

But few come to happy hour to continue talking about what they talk about at work, unless prodded by a reporter who wants to talk about existential matters (“You used the word ‘existential’ at a happy hour?” says one House staffer on the patio of Union Pub, her eyes narrowing behind Ray-Bans). It does help, however, to be around like-minded ilk when the conversation veers toward the wonkish.

“If politics does come up, it’s not awkward,” says First Friday co-host Tom Qualtere, 24, a speechwriter for the House Republican Conference. “There’s no talking in circles, or saying, ‘Oh, are you a Democrat?’ There’s a freedom of conversation.”

On Thursday: class rings, the Cure, man purses, talk of “Obama 3.0,” sign-up sheets for D.C. statehood rallies, pleas to help with elections in the Virginia statehouse, metal business-card cases in one hand and a glass of white wine in the other.

“This is America at its best,” says food blogger Nadine Bartholomew, observing the crush of progressives around the semicircle bar at First Thursday. “What you are looking at is the next generation. They’re supposed to be cynical, but they believe in the system.”

On Friday: cigarette ash floating in golden-hour sunlight on the patio, painted toenails, Bud Light, carcasses of hot wings littering inside tables, Obama on CNN above the caption “Way Below Expectations,” casual observations like “Paul Ryan is a cult hero here.”

“I don’t know that policy is being changed here but idea-crafting is born out of events like this,” says First Friday’s special guest S.E. Cupp, the conservative author-commentator who just arrived at Union Pub from introducing Donald Trump at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s conference. “The connections I’ve made stopping into these things for 10 minutes has helped me craft my own message.”

First Friday, confident in its electoral and social prowess, wishes First Thursday all the best. The conservative movement “is upbeat and relieved,” says Ford O’Connell, the Republican strategist, watching the menagerie chatter, illuminated by coverage of women’s softball. “Upbeat because we’re looking forward to 2012.”

And relieved how? One would imagine conservatives are anxious, with Democrats still in power, with a presidential field as potent as mop water, with a rival progressive happy hour trying to trench its way into the scene.

Relieved why?

O’Connell shakes his head. Too many serious, existential questions.

“Because it’s Friday,” he says.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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