The People Who Connect People on Capitol Hill
Move over, GOP old guard. There’s a posse of new socializing sheriffs in town.
Since winning the majority of both chambers of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections, Democrats have seen their profiles rise. And along with the spotlight on their policy moves, there’s new attention to the social maneuvering — the fundraisers, networking events, happy hours and parties — that makes them tick, and to the people who spearhead that maneuvering.
Barbra Streisand called them “people who need people.” Malcolm Gladwell called them “connectors.” And people in Washington? Well, they just call them, period. Or BlackBerry them.
They’re the hubs, the hosts, the organizers, the people who introduce Democrats to other Democrats. And Roll Call’s tracked down just a few of them.
When Paul Bock was a new chief of staff for Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) 11 years ago, he felt like he didn’t have a clue. With a law degree and a few years as a staffer for the Senate Judiciary Committee under his belt, he knew policy and the rhythms of the Senate. But managing people? Hiring and setting payroll? That was all new.
So Bock, who’s now 43, turned to other chiefs of staff in the chamber, taking them out for coffee, seeking advice about how they did their jobs. After setting up a handful of such advice sessions, he decided to take it to a grander scale. He started convening groups of 10 or 12 chiefs of staff for lunches, an effort that eventually snowballed into lunches including all the Democratic chiefs of staff in the chamber. Bock’s boss agreed to foot the bill for the food, and Bock started inviting speakers, from authors to pollsters.
With topics ranging from the party’s message to how to handle annual reviews for staffers, the lunches proved to be a way for some of the Hill’s most powerful — and potentially most isolated — staffers to interact outside the daily crush of business.
“If your boss needs to work with another Member, it’s so much easier to call up someone you’ve shared a meal with,” Bock says. “You establish communication so that those situations aren’t cold calls, usually in some sort of crisis mode.”
Bock’s talent for bringing people together soon led him to take the reins of a regular weekly chiefs meeting that had sprung up. The meeting, which takes place every Friday the Senate is in session, is a chance to review the week ahead, discuss strategies for the party’s message and look ahead.
Bock credits the weekly Friday meetings and the lunches, which take place every other month or so, for helping to galvanize the party in one of its biggest victories as a minority — the defeat of Republicans’ plans to privatize Social Security in 2005. After a depressing 2004 election, things had been looking grim for Democrats.
“Susan McCue [a former aide to then- Minority Leader Harry Reid] really used those meetings to show us that we could make our case, that this was an opportunity to unite and fight,” Bock says.
He admits the meetings are a lot more fun these days, now that Democrats hold a majority, however slim, in the Senate. Recently, he says, the gatherings and visiting speakers have been a chance to reinforce the Democrats’ nascent “echo chamber” — a model Republicans have long used successfully — of think tanks, third-party groups and blogs resonating their message.
And for Bock, who describes himself as “hyper-social,” the networking doesn’t stop there: For the past few years, he has helped wrangle staffers for a semiregular bipartisan gathering over breakfasts or dinners, where subjects range from mundane managerial issues to broader policy challenges. And he’s a regular at a weekly get-together for the new Democratic chiefs of staff, which usually consists of Friday afternoon beers in the office of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
Golf, one of Bock’s hobbies, is an opportunity to connect with colleagues, too, so he calls on a group of fellow links-loving Hill chiefs when he gets a chance to hit the greens.
Bock likes to confine most of his networking to office hours, he says, since it’s easiest to fit in with most staffers’ long work hours, frequent fundraisers and need for family time (including his own preference for spending evenings with his two young children).
Though he’s come a long way from the clueless newbie of 11 years ago, Bock says he’s still learning from his fellow chiefs.
Dancing With the Politicos
Marissa Pavlova Mitrovich might not have the dance career of her namesake, the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, but she’s used fancy footwork to network across town. The vice president at lobbying firm The Washington Group says she earned her stripes helping to organize a young professionals organization, Generation United, for Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) in 2005. Through that first effort, Mitrovich, 28, saw an opening for young professionals like herself to make connections with like-minded politicos. The Biden events drew more than 200 people, she says, and two years later a core group of those early supporters still stay in touch.
That initial experience helped her look for opportunities to widen her network and cull supporters for future fundraising events, says the San Diego native who started out in Washington interning for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and for Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.).
This past fall, Mitrovich started a bipartisan lunch for women downtown.
“We realized that we all have these jobs in politics and why don’t we touch base so we can have a good network of people to reach out to as people who are up and coming and getting their feet wet in business,” Mitrovich says. The group of 20- and 30-something women, which tries to meet quarterly, had more than 30 at its November luncheon.
“We knew that other people, older people, had been doing it for years,” Mitrovich says. “I was inspired by watching other people and said, ‘Hey we need to start building up a group so we can talk politics and what’s going on on the Hill, and business, and the various trends.’
“It’s been a great way to meet new people because one person comes and brings two more people.”
Mitrovich says that so far, she hasn’t thrown in her hat with any particular Democratic presidential candidate, but she expects to get involved following the primaries.
A Junior League of Washington member, Mitrovich also helps out with causes in the community. She’s currently reaching out to friends and political contacts as a member of the host committee for the Washington Ballet’s annual Jeté Society Dance Party, which will be held at the French Embassy this year.
“It’s a great way to get out and have a good time and a great way to network,” says Mitrovich, who also is taking dance lessons at the ballet company. “Last year, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen since 2004. We reunited and he actually is another very social young Democrat. It was a great way for us to touch base and expand upon both of our networks.”
Hobnobbing, Hollywood Style
For David Sutphen, networking is a way of life. It didn’t take long for the Viacom senior vice president, who came to D.C. in 1996 after finishing law school a year before his ex-boss, former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), at the University of Michigan, to get into the thick of things, both politically and socially.
“I think I’ve always been very social,” Sutphen says. “I’m biracial: My mother is white and Jewish, my father is African-American. I grew up in the Midwest and went to predominantly white schools, yet I have always felt a strong and identifiable connection with the African-American community.”
For Sutphen, that translated into creating a diverse network of contacts on Capitol Hill as Ford’s chief of staff, and later as Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) Senate Judiciary Committee general counsel during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.
But Sutphen says he really started to focus on bringing people together once he moved downtown. “What happens when you leave government work and are on the outside is you start to figure out the things you do well,” he says.
For him, that meant trying to build coalitions and networks of political and downtown types, first at the Recording Industry Association of America and now at Viacom.
“I realized I was never fully comfortable asking people for things when I did not know them,” Sutphen says. “So I think over time I just started to realize that the more opportunities I could create to get to know people in casual settings, the more comfortable I was if I ever had to call them.”
That thinking has served him well in his capacity at Viacom, where he’s tasked with trying to expand the media and entertainment company’s visibility in Washington. Promoting a Tinseltown company in Washington might not seem like a challenge, but Sutphen notes that after Viacom’s split with CBS in 2005, a lot of politicians still don’t know all of the company’s channels, which include MTV, BET, Nickelodeon, and the gay and lesbian channel Logo.
“Most people had no idea when Republicans were in control that [Country Music Television] was one of our channels,” Sutphen says.
One way Sutphen has worked to change that is by setting up dinners when company executives come to town. Most recently, Sutphen tapped his social connections to fete Brian Graden, head of the MTV, VH1, CMT and Logo channels, by reaching out to DC Modern Luxury Magazine to co-host a dinner in October at the Oval Room. The event brought out political heavyweights such as former RIAA head Hilary Rosen, DCCC Executive Director Brian Wolff, Washington Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld and then-ONE Campaign President McCue.
“Washington has changed dramatically in the last three to four years,” Sutphen says. “There used to not be among our age group of under-40 political types a political network to tap into, but with Capitol File and DC Modern Luxury Magazine coming to town and new clubs, it has grown.”
As a socializer, Sutphen has gotten to know general managers and owners of restaurants and bars.
“I came to realize the beauty of working at a media company is there were opportunities where I could do something in return,” Sutphen says.
Aside from work, he has used his connections to help raise money for organizations that resonate with him. Last year, Sutphen and friends helped organize a benefit for the D.C.-based nonprofit YouthAIDS, raising around $12,000.
“What better way to spend some time with a member outside of the context of a fundraiser for them [than] to invite them to an event for a great nonprofit, a cause that they care about?” Sutphen says.
He adds that he’s banking on using his substantive social skills over the next decade to solidify contacts and become even more of a resource. That can’t hurt in a town where connections can be measured by how many calls it takes to get to the owner of a restaurant or a politician.