Symone Sanders, 31, senior adviser to Vice President Harris, has just come from work, wearing a camel-hair-colored shawl, her long, rainbow fingernails tapping on her phone.
“Sorry, I’ve just been knee-deep in the Northern Triangle,” she says, referring to the Central American nations whose citizens have fled in large numbers to America’s southern border.
Her fiance, Shawn Townsend, 37, sits slumped beside her in the booth. Sanders is the more-famous half of the couple — you might remember her body-blocking a stage-crasher rushing Joe Biden during the presidential campaign — but right now it’s Townsend, D.C.’s director of culture and nightlife, who is trying to avoid being recognized. Known around town as “The Night Mayor,” he spends much of his day fielding complaints about the city’s reopening plan, with many people wondering when his boss — the actual mayor, Muriel E. Bowser — is going to raise the capacity limits for Washington’s restaurants and bars.
Townsend pulls a houndstooth cabbie hat low on his forehead in order to avoid being spotted by a local bar owner who just walked in.
“I’ve got missed calls from him,” he says, sheepishly rubbing his goatee. “Does he see me? No, he doesn’t.”
If the Trump years were represented by couples like Jared and Ivanka, who were seen as having tension with their adopted city, and George and Kellyanne Conway, who were seen as having tension with one another, then maybe the Biden years will be defined by the likes of Sanders and Townsend. They are young, Black and in love, both working on different fronts to Make Washington Normal Again.
“This is your first time inside?” Sanders asks me, her voice gentle, as if talking to a stray puppy. “I was very against going into restaurants until Shawn showed me the data,” she continues, referring to the city’s coronavirus dashboard, which indicates that outbreaks identified by the city seldom have been traced to food-retail buildings. “So I said, ‘Okay, I guess it’s safe now.’ ”
“I went out with a colleague,” Townsend chimes in. “I didn’t know it was his first time out back in March. He kept his mask on in between chews. Eating tacos! He ended up leaving early.”
Which was honestly where I was at, mentally, when the couple suggested Old Ebbitt. Sanders was right; it was my first time inside a restaurant in over a year. After my second vaccine dose, I’d set an enthusiastic calendar notification — “Two weeks are up! You can eat inside!” — but that date was still almost a week away. Sanders and Townsend were both fully vaccinated and weren’t sweating my antibody count. Still, I felt jumpy, circumspect, socially inept.
Which is why we’re here at Old Ebbitt, the anteroom of normal, eating and drinking in a roomful of unmasked strangers. The goal of this restaurant — with its massive oil paintings of nude women and its bottomless supply of oysters — has always been to bend time, to make guests feel as if they slipped back into a Washington of yore. To transport them to an imagined era of comity and bipartisanship, or now, at the very least, to the Before Times of 2019, when eating the fried food here carried more health risks than breathing in the smell.
“The calamari here is good,” Sanders said, squeezing lemon juice over a plate of deep-fried squid and pushing the plate into the center of the table.
It may take some time for Americans to feel comfortable returning to shared tables and (gasp!) shared plates — let alone a shared vision of the country. The barriers to normal are structural, financial and medical, but they are also psychological. After the anxiety and trauma of pandemic life, a return to normal seems like deliverance. Then again, normal is how things felt in Washington right before Democrats elsewhere nearly nominated a far-left revolutionary while Republicans went all-in on a TV businessman with a penchant for authoritarianism and a vanishingly thin connection to reality. Whether you were on Team Revolution or Team Nostalgia, Washington was the enemy. Normal wasn’t working.
“We must reject the concept of ‘normalcy,’ ” Sanders later wrote in a memoir. Instead of returning things to the way things were, the goal should be “redefining what it means to be ‘normal.’ ”
In 2015, for her, that meant joining Bernie Sanders’s campaign for president. She took the job because she shared enough of Bernie’s politics, and also because his was the only campaign that returned her calls. In her interview, Sanders recalls telling the senator from Vermont that she wanted to be named national press secretary and that she wanted to be on cable television. And despite having little experience, they agreed. One of her first tasks was to help Bernie Sanders deal with a Black Lives Matter movement that kept derailing his rallies.
“Disruption is an effective tool, and at its core it’s about attention,” she wrote in her book. And so, she wrote, she made it a “personal mission” to help communicate the issues fueling the disruptions, getting in touch with BLM activists ahead of events and brokering listening sessions. “It worked,” she wrote. “The disruptions ceased to exist.”
In her memoir, Symone Sanders took care to make a distinction that others sometimes did not. “I know when I was hired to work on Senator Sanders’s campaign I was often referred to as a Black Lives Matter activist (LOL),” she writes. “I am not an activist. I like to say I play one on TV.”
Playing different roles comes naturally to Symone Sanders, who wrote in her memoir that, "Faking it until you make it is sometimes OK." As a kid she had an alter ego, pantomiming telecasts into hairbrushes and calling herself "Donna Burns." After working for Bernie, she became a real-life pundit, working for CNN, and then linked up with Biden in 2020. Her supporters call that kind of flexibility necessary to being successful in politics. The detractors say it's a sign that she's never stopped faking-it-until-she-makes-it, and that the only thing she truly stands for is Symone Sanders.
She is something of a classic — and often derided — Washington archetype: the consummate operator, able to skate from one type of politician (a democratic socialist) to another (an establishment favorite) depending on whose coattails seem more promising. She carries herself with a kind of self-promotional swagger that can rub people the wrong way. Not a lot of political staffers publish memoirs at age 30; hers is peppered with advice about getting ahead. “No one is going to hand you power or open the door for you to voice your opinion or your desires,” she writes. “You have to demand it.”
The book’s title, “No, You Shut Up,” refers to a CNN segment about the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in which Sanders appeared opposite former Virginia attorney general (and future Donald Trump appointee) Ken Cuccinelli. Feeling steamrolled, Cuccinelli told her to “shut up for a minute.” Sanders wasn’t having it. “You should exhibit some decorum, and understand that you are trying to defend and excuse white supremacists on this program,” she responded through a hail of crosstalk, “and under no circumstances will I sit by while that happens. So you can shut up.”
“I think she has integrity,” said Cornel West, a prominent Bernie supporter who has heard complaints about “Sister Symone” being a turncoat for eschewing Bernie for Biden. “Still, I was surprised by her shift. She spoke for Bernie with such heart and such power.” Ultimately, West said, “I think she just wanted to go with a winner.”
She picked a winner, but the winner didn’t pick her back. Sanders had made it known, privately and in her book, that she hoped to be the first Black woman to hold the job of press secretary. Biden instead chose Jen Psaki, a former communications director for President Barack Obama, for the job. “That one stung her,” said Bakari Sellers, a mutual friend of Townsend and Sanders.
Sellers said Sanders “spent a lot of capital” in that job, oftentimes asked to defend Biden when the campaign “had a problem with the Black community” (like, for example, when Biden put his foot in his mouth by telling Charlamagne Tha God that if anyone was having a “problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”)
“These moments were not few and far between,” Sellers said. “They would send Symone out to take those bullets. . . . And then to be passed over, that hurt.”
It was a difficult time, Townsend will admit. “She was definitely hopeful that she would have that opportunity,” he told me.
Whether Sanders’s brand-building and vocal desire for the job kept her from the podium is a much-debated question among her peers in the administration. It’s perfectly normal for ambition, even the undisguised kind, to be rewarded in Washington — certainly among White, male operators trying to win the attention and favor of other White, male operators. Like many Black women, Sanders faces the extraordinary challenge of climbing the professional ladder while navigating fragile egos. These days, she tries to minimize any talk about her personal ambition. “I want to tamp down on any of the ‘what’s next on the job lol’ pieces of this story,” she texted me before dinner. “I’m very happy where I am.”
She’s inside the gate. And she was overjoyed to get that call from Harris, says Townsend. “To get that call from the VP offering her a job, she was incredibly grateful,” he says. “I still have a picture on my phone of her getting that call, in tears.”
A few weeks after our dinner, Psaki made a ripple in Washington media when she told fellow Obama alum David Axelrod that she plans to relinquish the podium after a year or so. “I think it’s going to be time for somebody else to have this job,” she said.
I texted Sanders and asked if she was going to try to level up. She deflected the question with ease. “I am happy where I am with what I’m doing,” she reiterated. “And it’s keeping me very very busy!”
Sanders met the Night Mayor at a Washington screening of "While I Breathe I Hope," a 2018 documentary about Sellers. Sellers thought the high-energy Omaha gal could use the calming presence of a Southern gentleman from South Carolina. "He was described to me as accommodating," Sanders says, leaning over to squeeze Townsend's arm. "Oh, man, my guy friends are never going to let me live that down," he says, laughing.
They hit it off quickly, and he began showing Sanders a side of D.C. she’d never known. He took her to her first go-go show — thanks in part to Townsend, go-go was named the official music of the capital last year (despite being endangered by gentrification) — and introduced her to restaurants and clubs all around town.
Townsend moved to the D.C. area as a kid when his stepfather was stationed at Bolling Air Force Base. After going to college in New Mexico with designs on getting into journalism, he took a series of city government jobs, first doing oversight work for the D.C. public schools, then in the D.C. office of “complaints,” where he looked into alleged police misconduct, and then as an investigator for the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration before assuming his duties in 2018 as Night Mayor.
It was a natural fit. He knew the difficulties that went into keeping an establishment in business, having helped his father run a bar in South Carolina, and he relished being a cheerleader for D.C.’s cultural scene. Still, not everyone in the industry trusted him as he made the move from liquor cop to advocate. One industry Facebook page refuses to let him become a member. “They said I’m the Feds,” he says.
These days he can be spotted making the rounds in the H Street corridor to check in on what businesses need to survive, popping in on a downtown restaurant trying to open for the first time, and handing out free meals at Hook Hall, a bar and event space that has been helping feed industry workers for the past year.
Being “accommodating” is a useful quality to have when you’re serving as a diplomat to the District’s stressed-out food and beverage industry. Kathy Hollinger, the president and CEO of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, described Townsend’s job as “one-part therapist, one-part punching bag. “He really is a crucial part of the comeback,” she said. Still, Hollinger said, it’s been frustrating for restaurant owners to deal with the strict capacity limits of the District while their neighbors in Virginia and Maryland have opened up more quickly.
The comeback of D.C. nightlife, broadly speaking, means a return to the hum of busy restaurants and crowded bars and sweaty nightclubs that sustained through the Trump years, as patrons whipsawing between crisis management existential malaise in their day jobs took comfort in the fact that they still lived in a city full of decent places to eat and drink and dance. Biden’s victory presaged a more specific kind of comeback: the return of high-profile White House officials to those places.
President Obama made a habit of exploring the city, and even had a catchphrase for when he would leave his motorcade for an unplanned stroll through town: “The bear is loose!” He and the first lady could be spotted celebrating birthdays at Rose’s Luxury in Southeast, or blocking off a busy street in Adams Morgan for dinner at Mintwood Place, or sipping on something fancy at José Andrés’s Minibar. Articles appeared with headlines like, “How to eat your way through D.C. like Obama.”
A dining guide for Trump would have exactly one entry: the Trump International Hotel. Trump showed no interest in eating out at any place without his name on it, and when recognizable members of his administration ventured out to other restaurants, their meals often came with a side of heckling. Townsend and Sanders may represent a rekindling of the affection between the city and its presiding administration — a natural consequence of a Democratic victory. And in certain instances, such as when second gentleman Douglas Emhoff showed up to an event at Hook Hall, and when Harris strolled through a holiday arts fair, Townsend made the recommendations.
“I take pride in being a connector to real people,” he says.
“I know real people!” Sanders says, smacking the table in mock exasperation. “I had dinner at the British ambassador’s house the other day. . . . She’s a real person.”
"I know you," the waiter said to Sanders, after bringing over more rosé and whiskey to go with the main course of cheeseburgers and steak salad. "You're from CNN, I love your commentary!"
“I was, yes,” she says. “Thank you!”
Their jobs today are different from the ones they thought they were signing up for a couple of years ago. Townsend has gone from a cheerleader for D.C.’s healthy nightlife to a lifeline for an industry in peril. (The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington says there has been nearly a 70 percent decrease in restaurant sales during the pandemic, resulting in 135 closures since March 2020.) Sanders went from honing her TV chops in hopes of getting a shot at the briefing room podium to being a mostly behind-the-scenes adviser and spokeswoman to a vice president, an often-ceremonial job that has famously been compared — trigger warning for the unvaccinated — to a “bucket of warm spit.” (Biden, for what’s worth, has empowered Harris as a true decision-maker in his administration; her portfolio includes addressing the root cause of migration from the Northern Triangle, among other things.)
Sanders has undergone a very normal transition from campaign pugilist to administration insider, but the government she has joined is not typical. Working for the first Black veep means she doesn’t have to brief her boss about being Black in America before Harris does an interview about the Derek Chauvin verdict. Working for a White House that inherited the greatest public-health crisis in living memory means she got to be in the room when the president announced that 200 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine had been administered ahead of schedule.
The Night Mayor has been working on vaccines at a lower altitude. He is talking to Hook Hall about trying to up that number with a “shots for shots” program, where attendees can celebrate getting vaccinated with free booze. Soon, he says, the city should open up even more: higher capacity limits, more live music, new restaurants.
Many Americans are desperate for things to go back to the way they once were, and it’s starting to happen. Townsend and Sanders, who got engaged on Easter, are planning a future.
“Nightlife is going to be better than ever when this is all over,” Townsend says.
“We’re going to build back better,” says Sanders.
They were speaking in sound bites. We were eating and drinking inside. Things were already starting to feel normal again. Or, at least, 25 percent normal.