The freshman congresswoman had been sworn in for only an hour or two, and she was already loaded for bear.
“I’m going to beat you!” she declared to this reporter, feet from the House floor.
This was no retaliatory physical threat over tough campaign coverage. No, she was talking softball.
There is no other city where amateur softball is taken more seriously than in the District of Columbia. But there is one game that takes that intensity to the point of near absurdity: the annual June meeting of female lawmakers against female Capitol Hill reporters.
“It’s a rivalry. Full-fledged,” the game’s founder, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said on swearing-in day. “It’s a healthy intensity, one that has a fun edge to it.”
And so that is how the first day of the 113th Congress became Draft Day.
Players on the reporter’s team, known as the Bad News Babes, scoped out the new female members and traded information on which freshmen had committed to joining the members’ team. And it is not just the female reporters — one of the Bad News Babes’ male coaches was in on the act as well.
Meanwhile, Wasserman Schultz spent part of the day nailing down recruits, including freshman Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill.
Wasserman Schultz dreamed up the game several years ago to promote both bipartisanship and a breast cancer charity, the Young Survival Coalition.
The joke is that the competitive swagger among players has not always matched their athletic ambitions. Trash talk is often fiercer than the performance on the field.
But things are changing.
Americans elected a record number of women to Congress this year, so the members’ team has a wider talent pool. It remains to be seen whether it is deeper.
The members often complain about the age disparity between the two teams, and these rookies will indeed be younger. But it is not physical abilities that seem to matter as much as the fact that, like the reporter team, many of these women are post-Title IX and are no novices to organized sports.
As for the Babes, a dramatically improved team showed up to play last year, thanks to new players and Spartan-like dedication from veterans such as the Chicago Sun Times’ Lynn Sweet.
The big news for the Bad News Babes is that CNN’s Dana Bash confirmed on swearing-in day that she will return to her co-captain role after redshirting the 2011 season for maternity leave and missing the 2012 game because of her brother’s wedding.
Wasserman Schultz approached Bash several years ago to begin the tradition. Previously, the members played against campaign committee staffers.
The pair has done much to cultivate within their ranks an appreciation for hurling insults at the other side.
“There’s real trash talk in the hallways,” Bash bragged in an interview in front of her TV liveshot at the Capitol.
Two such incidents occurred over the holidays. When Babes first baseman Kasie Hunt landed a new job at NBC News, Wasserman Schultz tweeted a note of congratulations that included the inevitable softball taunt.
And another Babe circulated a holiday card with a photo of a violent home-plate collision between herself and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.
‘A Nice Assassin’
But the most intense personal rivalry is between Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Both are co-captains and both, like Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez of “The Sandlot,” are known to direct plays and buck up teammates during low moments.
They have known each other since the 2006 cycle. As a Cook Political Report editor, Walter was one of the first reporters in Washington to interview Gillibrand when she was an unknown House candidate.
Both avoid the Twitter taunt bait and reserve their competitive natures for the field. To them, it’s not about winning. It is about not losing.
Walter is also a former editor at National Journal’s The Hotline — a breeding ground of budding political reporters. During her tenure there, she earned a reputation within a certain generation of journalists as one of the kindest, most generous power players in town.
On game day, Walter might as well be an assassin.
“A nice assassin,” Walter corrected. “I truly don’t want to injure anyone.”
Likewise, Gillibrand has cultivated a bubbly image and is rarely seen in public without a smile.
As her team’s pitcher, Gillibrand has a tendency to saunter her way around the mound. Her icy blue gaze is enough to scare the hell out of former high school varsity letterwomen. At bat, she has been known to sarcastically blow kisses at Walter playing shortstop. And the Empire State’s junior senator clucked like a chicken when the reporter team opted for an intentional walk in 2011.
No Crying in Softball
Antics aside, this is not Little League. In the worlds of adulthood and politics, outside factors can have profound implications for each team’s lineup. Every two years, the members’ roster faces a shake-up with elections. As for the reporters, the continued instability of journalism has meant their roster has been nearly as fluid.
One major loss to the member team is within its leadership. Former team captain Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., announced in December that she was resigning from Congress in February. Her daughter, Tori, is their team’s coach. Wasserman Schultz swiftly moved into action upon hearing the announcement and asked the younger Emerson to remain in her role.
The reporter roster has its own annual complications.
“They lose people due to elections,” Walter said. “We lose people to pregnancy.”
The Bad News Babes found itself in serious trouble last year when their ace pitcher, Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown, was on the disabled/maternity list. And there are other pregnancies this year that are of concern to team leadership.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., the members’ top recruit, scoffed at the notion that pregnancy is a legitimate problem.
“I played softball pregnant,” she said. “Don’t be giving me that.”
Comments like that make it fairly clear that this rookie will fit right into the rivalry.
Abby Livingston is a co-captain of the Bad News Babes softball team.