Lobbyist Dan Berger is a self-avowed “red stater” with what some might consider a blue-state passion: art.
Fortunately for Berger — a hunting and fishing enthusiast who possesses a quirky Conan O’Brien sensibility and a near-universal reputation as a “man’s man” (his buddies once dubbed him “The Man Show” in reference to the Comedy Central program) — he’s found the perfect way to reconcile these competing compulsions.
Most Sundays, with his one-year-old daughter, Shelby, in tow, Berger, a former chief of staff to Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), turns on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” plops himself down at his living room high table and with brush in hand sets to work carrying out his strikingly beautiful, minimalist sumi ink paintings of women dancing, playing music, sitting, jumping and standing — “whatever,” Berger says.
“If I see a photograph or painting that has a neat look, I will try to paint it simpler, or in what I think is an interesting pose,” he says.
“Sumi art is very difficult. Once the ink hits the page if you screw it up, it’s impossible to fix,” he adds of the traditional Chinese and Japanese art form. “I destroy a lot of paper.”
That wasn’t always the case, says Berger, who on a recent Tuesday morning is dressed in typical Capitol Hill gear: white button-up shirt, dark slacks, paisley-patterned tie and that ubiquitous emblem of political hipsterdom, a yellow “LiveStrong” bracelet.
“I was an economics major,” he says, gesturing toward his framed Florida State University diploma. (He also holds a master’s in public administration from Harvard University.)
After college, the self-described “political junkie” went to work as a lobbyist, spending years working mainly on behalf of financial services firms and insurance companies. He was a political adviser for Harris’ campaigns, beginning with her 1993 race for the Florida state Senate. After managing her successful 2002 Congressional bid, he served briefly on the Hill before making the leap back to the private sector in the summer of 2003 to join America’s Community Bankers, where he is vice president for government relations. He is also part owner of a Florida-based company that specializes in software for golf tournaments.
Two years ago, while on vacation in the Florida Keys with his wife, Aimee, Berger — who can just as easily digress on the relative merits of long-term CDs for the retirement-age crowd as he can on the art of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko — walked into a Wyland gallery and was impressed by the well-known marine artist’s rendering of “what must have been an 8’ by 6’ painting of a dolphin,” he says. “It might have been seven strokes that he did it with.
“I thought, ‘Wow, it’s very cool. I’d like to try that.’”
So Berger bought the necessary art supplies and started “doodling.” When Shelby was born last year — appropriately, he says, on the late President Ronald Reagan’s birthday — he became “much more serious” about the endeavor. “It’s something to do when I hang out with her.”
“He’s always going 1,000 miles an hour inside his head,” says Ben McKay, his longtime friend and successor as Harris’ chief of staff who’s now a lobbyist for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, pointing to Berger’s erstwhile fiction-writing habit. “He’s got to have things to keep him busy.”
Berger is also something of an amateur art collector. His Alexandria, Va., home holds dozens of “abstract paintings by young, undiscovered artists.”
A quick scan of his K Street office, however, gives away few clues to his “bluer” side. A signed copy of Harris’ first bill that became law (the American Dream Downpayment Act), a political movie poster (he’s a collector) and assorted family photos and pro-Bush bumper stickers anchor the office’s decidedly conservative aesthetic offerings.
Propped up against the foot of one wall, however, is a mellifluous black ink rendering of a dancing woman painted for his old boss and “dear friend” Harris. It’s a belated Christmas present that he’s had rolling around in the back seat of his Ford Expedition for more than a month.
When Berger finally gets around to giving it to her later that week, Harris, herself a photo-realist painter, says she is shocked to learn of her former aide’s artistic side. “It’s very good,” she beams, adding that it is both “proportional” and “winsome.”
Jason Roe, chief of staff to Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), was even more taken aback when he received a framed image of a figure playing the flute from his former Capitol Hill colleague. “I called him to thank him for giving me one of Aimee’s magnificent works of art,” Roe recalls. Since the painting bore only the artist’s last name, Roe assumed it was the work of a more “delicate hand,” he laughs, adding that the painting now sits on his desk right next to his Tom DeLay bobblehead doll.
More seriously, Berger’s America’s Community Bankers colleague Priya Dayananda, a former aide to Democratic Reps. Steve Israel (N.Y.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas) and Gregory Meeks (N.Y.), compares his strokes to “what Matisse did in his linear drawings.”
“It’s really awesome,” she says of his work.
But the 39-year-old Berger, who by day walks the halls of Congress attending hearings and meeting with staffers on such topics as government-sponsored enterprise and Social Security reform, maintains that his art is strictly “a hobby.”
He isn’t aiming for the mantle of the “K Street Picasso,” Berger says. The paintings aren’t for sale and are reserved mainly for a few lucky friends and colleagues.
What he would like to do is grow his art form. Someday, he says, he’d like to paint big, real big.
“Mine are smaller. Wyland’s are … like 4’ by 4’, 4’ by 6,’” Berger says with just a hint of envy. “I’d like to get to that point.”
Roe, however, has another idea about what direction Berger should take his art.
“If he continues, I’d hope he starts painting nudes,” Roe chuckles.