Michael Hardaway was in an elevator with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy when he was just a young Senate staffer. He seized the opportunity to ask the liberal giant for advice on navigating D.C.
“Sen. Kennedy told me that members in the old days were able to pass bills and get things done because of friendships formed after hours, when members often gathered for steaks and scotch,” said Hardaway, now communications director for New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries.
That’s why you’ll find Hardaway rubbing elbows with Republicans at the Capital Grille. Or maybe you’ve seen him at the Oval Room across from the White House, or at downtown’s Fig & Olive, where the phrase “macerated truffle” appears on the menu several times.
It’s not exactly backroom steak, but the goal remains pretty much the same. Hardaway calls it the Bipartisan Dinner Group, and there’s only one rule: no political talk.
“I’ve always had friends on both sides of the aisle and figured bringing them together — over a good bottle of wine and a meal — would be a good start to restoring sanity on Capitol Hill,” said Hardaway, who’s run the informal dinner club for two years.
The group of staffers — no politicians have been invited so far — had dinner the week after the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which were divisive to say the least.
“Not one person uttered a word about that issue. We have an incredible time and leave the nonsense behind for a few hours. The main thing people feel when leaving these dinners: we have more in common than we thought,” said Hardaway, who’s also worked for Barack Obama and Sen. Bill Nelson.
The invitation to join the dinner is a vague, mysterious summons. You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into until you arrive.
Guests range from communications directors from both parties, people who work in the private sector and administration flacks. Not everyone knows everyone, and not everyone agrees.
“I think we’ve all had enough of the sniping and partisanship in D.C. these days. Hardaway’s bipartisan dinners are great for me because I get a chance to spend time with my peers on both sides of the aisle in a casual environment,” said Derrick Dockery, business and intergovernmental coalitions director for Speaker Paul D. Ryan.
He added, “I’ve been able to build great friendships and hope these dinners can be the beginning of better relationships between Democrats and Republicans in this town.”
Far on the other side of the aisle from Ryan sits Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois. Her deputy chief of staff and communications director, Jared Smith, attends the dinner.
“As we head into a new period of divided government, it’s more important than ever to know people on the other side of the aisle. Michael has done a great job bringing people together to get to know each other better and build relationships,” Smith said.
Even apolitical Washingtonians are welcome. “The benefit of this particular group was you had not just Republicans and Democrats, but also a wide range of types of professionals, including policy staff from Capitol Hill, communications directors, administration officials, regulatory staff, private sector professionals and reporters,” said Amy Best Weiss, American Express’ vice president and head of federal government affairs.
Can more dinner forks lead to fewer pitchforks? That’s the idea.
“The ease of conversation among the group was a reminder that there are benefits to both breaking out of our own silos and finding ways to connect free of partisan politics,” Weiss said. “The political process would benefit if more people intentionally flexed those muscles early and often.”
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