They wanted to marry in the place where they first began to fall in love. So Mike Cassesso and MaiLien Le, classic young Washington strivers who have worked on Capitol Hill and on major political campaigns, scheduled their nuptials for the site of their first date, on July 19, 2009: the west lawn of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
Their 130 guests were already starting to fly in from all over the country for the ceremony this Saturday when they received an ominous e-mail from the National Mall and Memorial Parks permit management office Monday morning. If the federal government shut down and remained shuttered at the wedding’s 5:30 p.m. start time Saturday, Cassesso and Le and their family and friends would be barred from stepping foot on the property.
Suddenly, the couple’s romantic Washington wedding was morphing into a government shutdown wedding. By Tuesday, the long-planned event was falling victim to nasty congressional squabbling — one of two dozen October weddings on the Mall, and potentially scores of others at hundreds of national parks across the country, endangered by the federal shutdown.
“Shutdowns are one of those things that on an intellectual level you know are going to impact an average person, but you really don’t get it until it hits you in a way like this,” said Cassesso, 29, a legislative analyst for AARP. “There are plenty of people around the country who may not understand that this isn’t just going to hurt nameless government workers and that, in a depressing way, it impacts your wedding plans with just a few days’ notice.”
His intended — who said she had prided herself on being a low-stress bride — had a somewhat more visceral reaction to the situation.“Oh [expletive],” said Le, 30, a project coordinator for an executive search firm, when she read the e-mail from the permit office. “This is really happening.”
Carol Johnson, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service’s National Mall and Memorial Parks unit, sympathized with the couple’s plight. “I can’t even imagine it,” she said. “It’s clearly so crushing. It would be so devastating.” But Johnson said that there’s nothing she can do and that Cassesso and Le are not the only couple whose wedding is on the chopping block. A total of 24 weddings are scheduled on the Mall in October, Johnson said.
Kathy Kupper, a Park Service spokeswoman, said the agency does not have a tally of the number of weddings scheduled at the country’s 401 national parks. But none of them can take place while the government is shut down.
All day Monday, Cassesso and Le, who paid $50 for a permit fee to host their wedding beside the Jefferson Memorial, scrambled to choose a backup site. Their options: Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar on Capitol Hill, the site of their reception; or the back yard of their apartment building in Northeast Washington.
Much like the members of Congress they currently revile, the couple found themselves at an impasse. She was leaning toward Sonoma, but Cassesso really wanted the outdoor event because they had already forked over more than $700 to rent out chairs, which would go unused at Sonoma. (The chair vendor, Le said, actually agreed to give half of their money back and allow them to use the other half for a future event.)
“The front of the apartment building has a really cool front yard, a little archway and a bunch of different bushes, plants and trees, but the back is pretty bare,” Cassesso said. “When we’re saying our vows, there will just be a regular wooden fence in the background.”
Le, again, had a somewhat more visceral reaction.
“There’s a dumpster there,” Le said. “I don’t want there to be a dumpster. It’ll smell.”
Ultimately, the two sides reached a consensus: The backup wedding site will be at Sonoma. (Who was Cassesso kidding? The bride always has the legislative upper hand.)
Cassesso and Le met in the summer of 2009 through the Plenty of Fish dating Web site. He was a staffer for Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), and she was working for a government-relations law firm. On that July day, they rendezvoused outside the Smithsonian Castle, strolled through the National Air and Space Museum and then took a paddle-boat ride by the Jefferson Memorial. They talked for two hours straight.
“What made her really like me was when I talked about my nephew, who was 2 and who was the light of my life,” Cassesso said. “And she was telling me about her love of comic books. I’m a lifelong geek. That really sold her to me.”
Three years later, they both moved to St. Louis. By then, he was working for the reelection campaign of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), and she was working for the reelection campaign of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D). They got engaged in May 2012 and moved back to Washington seven months later.
The couple are so nostalgic about that first date that, in the run-up to their wedding, they had a professional photographer take pictures of them paddle-boating by the memorial again.
“This is a very meaningful site to me,” Cassesso said. “And Thomas Jefferson is one of my favorite presidents.”
Their families were excited about seeing them say their vows at such a key location in the narrative of their romance.
It wasn’t until Monday night, several hours into the implosion of their wedding plans, that Cassesso told his parents about the situation. “I wanted to have a plan in place before I told them,” Cassesso said. “My mother is every emotional.”
A couple of weeks ago, when they began pondering how a shutdown might affect their nuptials, Cassesso and Le never thought that the wedding site would be off-limits. “We just thought there’d be leaves on the ground, that there’d be no maintenance, no rangers or Park Police,” Cassesso said.
They briefly contemplated crashing their own wedding site. “They’re going to barricade the entrance,” Cassesso said. “We’d have to jump some kind of fence to get on the grounds. MaiLien can’t do that in a wedding dress.”
Meanwhile, Le has had to ponder serious questions about love in the time of a government shutdown. Is the universe telling them something foreboding about their relationship?
“I mean, the one thing that could go wrong is Mike not showing up,” Le said, laughing. “But I am 120 percent sure he will.”
There was, she said, a third alternative for a wedding location. They could have it at the private residence of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) or House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
“Maybe I’ll send an e-mail to one of their schedulers now,” Le said.