WASHINGTON — In the nation’s capital – a place known to be consumed with partisan politics, often resulting in stalemates – U.S. Sen. Angus King has quietly launched a personal campaign to get to know his colleagues better so they can work together on behalf of the American people.
Maine’s Independent senator, who is often described as bi-partisan, began his project roughly three years ago after he and his wife, Mary, purchased a 908-square-foot house about six blocks from the Capital Building.
Their house happened to be only two blocks from Kenny’s BBQ Smokehouse. King – who called himself a “big ribs guy” – began frequenting the barbecue restaurant.
Now every month or so, he brings home dinner – two racks of ribs, two quarts of baked beans and coleslaw – to four or five of his colleagues where the guest list is always bipartisan. At King’s home, they break bread and talk in a casual environment devoid of staff or press members.
“It’s just an opportunity for people to get to know each other a little bit. … I’ve had everybody from Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren to Ted Cruz and Tom Harman,” King said, adding thus far between 40 and 45 senators have attended his dinners. “It’s really fun. I can’t say it’s changed the Senate.”
Regardless of what side of the aisle they stand, senators all have common experiences – campaigning, working with legislatures, dealing with leadership and the like, according to King. These experiences, coupled with the relaxed environment at his home, allow colleagues to find common ground.
“If you sat in on one of these sessions, you would be hard pressed to tell who was a Democrat and who was a Republican,” King said. “The other fun thing is the next day or the next week, these folks come up to me and say, ‘That was really fun. We should do that more often.’ There is a feeling of a kind of need for this. … It’s my own small way of trying to do something about the reason I don’t think the place works well.”
One of the reasons King believes Washington is dysfunctional is the answer to a question he is often asked about the differences and effectiveness of Congress 40 years ago, when he first served, versus today. Politicians’ families for the most part no longer reside in the nation’s capital and usually every weekend, lawmakers head back to their home state.
Today’s congressional schedule usually has the last vote on Thursday afternoon and the first vote usually isn’t until Monday afternoon, King said. That means politicians – from Maine to Florida to Colorado to Hawaii – are flying back each weekend.
“The result is that it has severely diminished the kind of social interaction that I saw back 40 years ago,” King said.
When politicians’ families lived in and around Washington, D.C., they knew each other since they would hold barbecues, go to their kids’ Little League games and commute to work together, among other things, he added.
“Their families knew one another. … It was an entirely different situation,” King said. “I am convinced one of the reasons things don’t get done much is we’re apart all the time.”
King said a similar event that is his favorite hour of his workweek is the Wednesday morning prayer breakfast. It’s his only nonpartisan part of his week, where senators and former senators come without staff or press, to listen to a senator speak about his or her religion.
“It’s a quiet moment amidst all the craziness,” King said. “It’s a different senator who speaks about their faith and it always ends up being autobiographical.”
He and Republican Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota – who is also a former governor – alternate introducing their colleagues and take the time to research largely unknown facts about them.
“It’s a way of learning that Harry Reid was born and raised in a house in Nevada with dirt floors and no plumbing,” King said.
He learned Lindsey Graham lived above a bar and his parents died when he was a teen, so Graham raised his sister.
These weekly breakfasts allow senators to discover “all those things you would never otherwise know” about their colleagues, King said.
“Tim Kaine, this past Wednesday, he talked about the three days after he was selected to join Hillary [Clinton] on the ticket and what his family went through,” King said.
He added Kaine spoke about going to his “little Catholic church in Richmond. It was very moving, it was very personal. Those are two things [the breakfasts and dinners] that are important to me to help humanize the place a little bit.”
King is a member of the former governors caucus, as there are currently 10 members of the Senate who are former governors. This caucus, which King co-chairs, meets periodically. As former governors, King described the group as “tend[ing] to be less partisan, more practical,” with a “let’s get things done” attitude.
He reflected back to 2013 when legislation was passed to reduce student loan interest rates. He said four of the six people, including himself, who made this happen were former governors.
“It was a big victory for American students. It almost cut interest rates in half,” King said. “I am just trying every way I can think of to build the relationships. … Whether it’s the newsroom at the Advertiser Democrat or the U.S. Senate, every organization runs on relationships. … The whole atmosphere [in Congress] facilitates against relationships and I am trying to crack that.”
Does it work?
While King isn’t convinced he has completely transformed the Senate through his efforts, he did share a moment where building relationships – including his dinners – led to success.
There was a series of votes on amendments to the budget one night. King and Kaine had submitted an amendment on how to solve the budget shortfall. The Republicans were the majority and the Independent from Maine and the Democrat from Virginia needed six or seven Republican votes to get their amendment passed. King and Kaine were able to gather up the votes so their amendment passed.
“I looked at the list the next day of the votes that we got. Virtually all of them were … [senators] one of us had developed personal relationships with … or they had been to dinners,” King said. “I don’t want to imply people cast votes based on friendships. … Relationships matter and you build up a relationship of trust and sort of mutual interest and that’s how things get done.”