At 7 a.m. at a rec center near the U.S. Capitol, a clutch of female Senate and House members have been practicing bipartisanship one pop fly, slow pitch and line drive at a time.
And on June 26, for the fifth straight year, 23 of them will go to bat for a breast cancer charity. Game organizers and sponsors hope to donate $100,000 to the Young Survival Coalition and draw over 1,000 fans, but that is not the only payoff for players.
In toxic Washington, these legislative jock-ettes — whose win-loss record is a dismal 1 and 3 — are busy morphing from strangers and adversaries to “girlfriends” and allies.
Unlike the Bad News Babes, their much younger media rivals, the lawmakers lack a team name. But they clearly don’t care enough to play it cute by calling themselves, say, the Congress Chicks or Lady Pols (hat tip to the University of Tennessee’s Lady Vols). They’d rather just play ball, schmooze, and occasionally talk shop.
“I like that it’s Republicans and Democrats, the House and Senate,” says Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md. “It’s a good way to get to know members I probably wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise. And as an added bonus, it’s good exercise, a way to take off the winter weight.”
“We have got the right balance of competitiveness,” says team co-captain Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. “We leave all that toxicity off the field. We get out here and we’re just girlfriends. Women are naturally more collegial. We try to find common ground. It’s gotten really hard in the political arena, but here we are one team fighting breast cancer. The most important thing is that we raise money for this incredible charity.”
By contrast, she says, “Men don’t ever turn off the partisan gene. They play Republican versus Democrat. They are not playing a common adversary, but each other.” (Earlier this month, the Dems crushed the GOP 22-0.)
Wasserman Schultz co-founded the women’s team in 2009 with Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to support the non-profit that helps young women with breast cancer. Wasserman Schultz, who discovered a breast lump in 2007 at age 41 during a self-exam and underwent seven surgeries, has pushed legislation to fund early detection and treatment for young women.
Though the beneficiaries are youthful, the congressional players not so much, especially the so-called “Golden Girls”: left fielder Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, 63, known for her speed, and pitcher Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., 76, who explains, “If you can bowl, you can slow pitch. I like the game because we talk families, we talk sports, we get to know each other better. Everyone thinks we talk politics, but we rarely do.”
In this crowd, rarely means sometimes. Gillibrand, who’s leading the fight to remove military sexual assault probes from the chain of command, has discussed the subject with at least two teammates: Sen. Susan Davis, D-Calif., a military spouse whose San Diego district has a large Navy presence, and freshman Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, one of the first two female combat veterans in Congress.
Among the most junior members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Gabbard has also gotten to know Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinin, R-Fla., one of the panel’s most senior members. “This is a lot more relaxed way to have meaningful conversations, and it makes a world of difference in building relationships and friendships,” says Gabbard.
The wisecracking Ros-Lehtinen, who rates her softball prowess as “low to very low,” laments that only seven of 23 team members are Republican, partly because fewer than one quarter of the record 101 women in both chambers are from the GOP. But some colleagues boycotted the game because of the 2012 campaign smack talk by Democratic National Committee chair Wasserman Schultz.
“Debbie had an aggressive role in campaigning against many of our members who felt the wrath of the DNC. It was tough to get young Republicans to come out. They said, ‘I am not playing with someone who kept talking about the Republican war on women.’ Now they see she’s very nice and charismatic and is not a fire-breathing dragon,” says Ros-Lehtinen, who credits Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., for breaking the ice last year as a freshman. “Martha is very Republican, very conservative, she comes from the South, she had a tough race and she had a lot of the Democrats against her. When our side saw she came out, she turned the tide.”
Roby joined for the fellowship. “You tend to know people you serve on committees with, and I probably wouldn’t have had the relationship with Debbie or any of the other ladies had I not come out to play.” When Wasserman Schultz was looking for a Republican colleague to join an advisory board on women in technology, she turned to her new baseball buddy despite numerous ideological differences.
The Bad News Babes cite the same reasons as their rivals for suiting up: the cause and the colleagues.
Jill Agostino, a New York Times Washington bureau editor, didn’t know many people when she moved down here several months ago, but that changed after the potluck dinner Gillibrand hosted at her Capitol Hill home for both teams last spring. (It’s the rare senator who opens her/his house to the press).
Co-captain Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report considers the game “a human side to what is often a dehumanizing place,” while Abby Livingston of CQ Roll Call thinks “It makes me a better reporter. When you have to bat against a U.S. senator, it suddenly doesn’t make them so intimidating.”
“I love the game and I love the camaraderie,” notes Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun- Times. “And I love the idea of trying to beat members of Congress.”
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com reporter and columnist whose work has also appeared in the New York Times, Town & Country and More. She is at work on a memoir.