Hundreds of staffers crowded into the Cannon caucus room Wednesday afternoon to learn about what the District of Columbia has to offer outside of Capitol Hill — and to fill their "D.C. Stuff" bags with some capital swag.
Staffers perused the 72 tables advertising local restaurants, hotels, attractions and services as part of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton's annual "Ask Me About D.C." event.
"What I’m hoping they take away from this event is information to give their constituents beyond official Washington, to what we call the ‘real Washington,’ the Washington that has 650,000 people, the Washington beyond the Mall," the Democrat told CQ Roll Call at the event. "We think that’s the part of Washington that their constituents need to get to know."
Norton said she has been hosting the event for more than a decade, seeing it grow substantially as D.C. businesses realized they can market their goods directly to congressional staffers, many of whom are new D.C. residents. Destination D.C., a nonprofit group of 850 businesses and organizations that markets D.C. as a must-visit location, co-hosted the event.
"There are so many new members of Congress, freshmen, new staff members that come here to work ... and adopt Washington as their secondary home," said Elliot Ferguson, president of Destination D.C. "But quite frankly, they don't really have a connection to our community. So this is our opportunity with our members to bring them into their own environment, give them a quick meal and let them kind of feel welcome."
That "quick meal" Ferguson referred to was from Chick-fil-A, complete with a chicken sandwich, chips and a cookie. Staffers exchanged business cards for a meal tickets to obtain the free boxed lunch. Destination D.C. ordered 1,100 boxes for the event, mostly paid for by member fees for operating a table. Organizations pay $400 for a table at the 2-hour event, or $200 for a half table.
The event also purposely takes place during recess, when members of Congress are out of town.
"We know that we’re not going to get ... the actual members here," Ferguson said. "But we know that their staff members are not as busy during recess, if you will. So we know that they will have more time to come down and spend some time with us."
The staffers who did take time to come to the event mingled around the expansive room, checking out tables boasting offerings from the D.C. United soccer team, the Cherry Blossom Festival, Air China, Carmine's Italian restaurant, Capital Bikeshare, and hotels and meeting spaces throughout the city.
Black bags labeled "D.C. Stuff" in hand, the staffers also picked up some swag, business cards and coupons for everything from chocolates and desserts to foam microphones from the Newseum.
“It’s always great when you get to meet a lot of the new congressional staffers," said Doug Swanson of the National Archives, "because they’re always looking to learn where things are and how they can get constituents into different areas."
Swanson identified a question he frequently gets: “Is there really a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence?”
Kidding aside, staffers did take the opportunity to learn more about D.C. services and attractions. But Norton said the event isn't intended to be a forum on her voting rights or the District's unique political status.
"This is all about fun stuff," Norton said. “In fact we’re trying to get people here away from thinking about the federal government or any government."
She noted that having employees view D.C. as a city that has its own life and nature outside of government could bolster support for autonomy.
"It will help us when people see us going and trying to take care of our own money, and the Congress trying to tell us what to do with our own money that we raised in the District," Norton said. "They’ll see us as a real city like their own.”
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