Republicans have talked a good game about cross-Dome coordination within their party. Seven of the 13 freshman GOP Senators are former House Members, and with the party revving up an ambitious agenda, synchronizing efforts between the two chambers has taken on a new importance.
An overlooked front in that new dynamic sits behind a desk in the temporary Senate offices set up in the courtyard of the Russell Senate Office Building.
Cathy Boozman looks every inch the perfect political wife: Her cardigan-and-button-down ensemble is in patriotic shades of red, white and blue. Her hair is coifed, and her manner warm and genuine.
She’s had plenty of practice in the role. Her husband, Republican Sen. John Boozman, represented the couple’s Arkansas district in the House for about nine years.
Boozman now has a new title to go with her new status as wife of a Senator. After her husband wrested the Arkansas Senate seat from Democrat Blanche Lincoln in November, she was named the bicameral coordinator of the Republican Congressional Spouses.
The GOP spouse organization has been dominated by the spouses of House Members, and its leaders hope to get the husbands and wives of their Senate brethren into the fold.
“I’m going to be a bridge,” says Boozman, who started attending meetings soon after her husband was first elected to the House in 2001. “I’ll try to coordinate, or at least make sure the Senate spouses know what we’re doing.”
The group — which is separate from the Congressional Club, made up of spouses of both parties — meets monthly for a lunch and lecture at the Capitol Hill Club. Guests are often authors on wide-ranging topics. (“It seems like everyone around here has written a book,” Boozman marvels.)
Boozman says the members of the GOP group enjoy learning from their speakers — but mostly, they value the camaraderie of being around fellow Congressional spouses. Only they truly understand the unique demands on them, their marriages, their families. They understand that, contrary to what people outside might think, there’s little glamour in the life of a Member of Congress — and even less in the life of a Congressional spouse.
Unlike some Congressional wives who stay back in the district while their husbands commute, Boozman says she has worked hard to make the nation’s capital a home away from home for the couple. They bought a two-bedroom place in Old Town Alexandria nine years ago that’s just big enough for visits from their three adult daughters, and they have settled into a routine punctuated by frequent flights to and from the district.
When they’re in Washington, D.C., she often drives her husband to work (the couple share a car), then goes about the usual litany of errands: laundry, groceries, housecleaning. Often, she drives back into the city to meet constituents at the White House and get them into tours. Evenings are more work: sometimes meeting with constituents, and almost always, receptions and dinners alongside her husband.
She’s not yet sure how the transition to being a Senate wife will work. Before, when the couple were in Arkansas, they spent all their time in the district, but now that Boozman holds a statewide office, they will likely have to venture far from home.
As Boozman talks from her perch behind her husband’s desk, the Senator saunters in. He is excited. He’s discovered that the cafeteria in the Dirksen Senate Office Building will fill any coffee mug for just 99 cents, and Boozman is holding a huge vessel of steaming joe like it’s a prize.
His wife watches with a smile.
Sen. Boozman counts himself lucky that his wife enjoys their peripatetic life. Many spouses, he says, particularly those from very rural areas, get discouraged when they first encounter the difficulties the Washington area presents — the byzantine roads, snarled traffic and the sprawl — and they simply give up.
“I’ve known wives who get so frustrated with all that they just never come back,” he says. “You have to fight through that initial period. It’s like learning to roller-skate — it’s hard, but once you know how to do it, you’re fine.”
Boozman recalls his own struggle to acclimate. Several times, he drove into the city for a morning meeting and became so frustratingly lost that he would finally park his car and take a cab.
“Then I’d worry that I’d have no idea where the car was, so I’d write it on my hand,” he remembers.
And that’s where the spouse organizations come in. Cathy Boozman says she tries to use her own expertise in the area to help new spouses overcome their initial fears and annoyances. A little guidance can make the transition much easier, she says.
“They get here, and they need to know ‘Where’s the Target? Where’s the Walmart?’ They need to know about dry cleaners and churches,” she says.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.