While the country’s political divide has never seemed greater, with gridlock in the halls of Congress and harsh language launched for both sides of the aisle, the private club industry stands uniquely unified. In Washington, D.C., and Congress, where what’s important is often “who you know” and “who do you work for,” the National Republican Club of Capitol Hill (Capitol Hill Club) and the National Democratic Club (NDC) provide a much needed respite for members of each party. And while their names suggest the clubs reflect the divisiveness of the city, the two clubs have built bridges with each other and share a mutual respect and even activities.
What’s the Capitol Hill Club?
The National Republican Club of Capitol Hill is a longtime institution of Washington, D.C., and plays an important social role in the Republican party. Just a brief walk from the U.S. Capitol and Congressional offices, the Capitol Hill Club provides a safe haven for Republican members of Congress, Congressional staffers, government relations professionals and other Washingtonians the opportunity to mingle, relax and discuss politics. Notable past members include Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush as well as many members of House and Senate leadership.
The club concept came from the late New Jersey Congressman James C. Auchincloss in 1950, and the first clubhouse opened one year later. Since then the clubhouse moved to just a block from the U.S. Capitol and has been the home to presidents, representatives, senators and other influential people. The club is a five-story facility with numerous dining rooms and meeting spaces.
What’s the National Democratic Club?
A few blocks away from the Capitol Hill Club and the U.S. Capitol is the National Democratic Club. Founded in 1953 by former members of the Truman Administration, the growing club is home to numerous members of the House and Senate. The club has called a variety of locations within the District home, including The Watergate Hotel. Notable past members include President Harry Truman and Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.).
The Democratic club has a similar mission to its Republican counterpart as it provides a social hub for many leaders left of the aisle. The club is modest in size but is quickly growing.
Running a Political Club
Operating a political club poses many challenges. Compared to the wider club community, there are similarities: both clubs focus heavily on social and networking functions and spaces and strong food and beverage services. However, both clubs also have to accommodate for the unique nature and schedule of their members’ line of work.
Both clubs’ memberships include members of Congress with a heavy lean toward members of the House of Representatives and fewer senators. Members also include lobbyists, trade association executives, Hill staffers and some members of the presidential administration.
The political world is subject to rapid change; however, the clubs’ membership numbers do not necessarily suffer from ebbs and flows of political power, points out Capitol Hill Club President and political veteran John Magill. There are several reasons. At the Republican club many members have been longtime club patrons and in the industry for years. Also, in regard to presidential administration staff that may change with each new president, these individuals have different working hours and do not regularly access the club.
In 2018’s “Blue Wave,” Democrats earned 40 seats over Republicans in the House of Representatives. Mirroring the election results, the Democratic club gained members as both the NDC General Manager Chris Colley and President and longtime political veteran Matt Cary personally went onto the Hill to invite freshmen Congressmen and women to join the club. While the Capitol Hill Club lost members following the midterms, the club’s strong reputation helped the club to quickly bounce back.
Historically at the NDC, those power dynamics were felt more strongly (such as in the 1970s–80s) when Democrats commanded the House and club membership and financials were up, says Cary. Later in the 1990s, Republicans dominated the lower chamber and membership waned. However, in recent years, membership numbers are up and with a stronger focus on club best practices, club leadership is excited for the future.
Congress’ schedule, however, does have a strong impact on the club. When Congress is out of session, which happens often (June was the only month where either chamber of Congress was in session every weekday), each club gears down. During Congress’ August recess the Capitol Hill Club closes for two weeks and the National Democratic Club closes for two weeks as well for cleaning and repairs. Colley ensures that every staff member understands the Congressional schedule and how it impacts the club.
These clubs also provide a more affordable place to congregate. Members of Congress host numerous fundraisers for their campaigns, often at expensive restaurants and venues. The club presents an economical and central locale to entertain and raise money.
Governing a Political Club
Each club boasts large boards: The NDC with 20 board members and the Capitol Hill Club with 39. Colley is proud of the club’s board, calling it the best he’s worked with. Directors are proactive, involved and supportive of management’s day-to-day operations. The board is nimble and supports change.
Magill and Capitol Hill Club General Manager Stan Lawson are proud of their board and governance capability as well. The Capitol Hill Club has six committees that continuously produce creative ideas that help the club grow. Both boards have a variety of professions serving on them, including members of Congress, and work efficiently with the occasional politicking necessary to help the clubs achieve their goals.
Despite Congress’ reputation for gridlock and divisiveness, the mood, tone and conversations at the respective clubs are productive and respectful. Members at each club are focused on passing legislation that helps their constituents. The club provides a space to talk freely about work outside of the office. Even though intraparty differences exist among both Democrats and Republicans, at the clubs, conversation is always cordial. Staff and members generally know which side of the aisle individuals at the club fall
on, which ensures conversations remain respectful. Discussions regarding President Trump, though often heated in the public sphere, are treated more lightly at the clubs.
Capitol Hill Club
The Capitol Hill Club is a highly regarded institution in the Washington club world and within the political arena. For many reasons, being a member of the Capitol Hill Club is almost essential for Republicans in the House.
Now in its 68th year, the Capitol Hill Club has been in its current clubhouse since 1972. Begun with less than 100 members, today the club is fortunate to be nearing a full member roster. The club is constantly adapting to the ways members want to use its services and amenities. As the literal “home away from home” for Republican congressmen and senators, the club is valued greatly for its great staff and dedication to creating great memories. Inside the club features a large collection of Puck and Judge satirical magazine covers as well as original Thomas Nast wood cuts reflecting the development of the elephant as the symbol of the Republican party. Television sets can be found tuned into ESPN, C-Span and Fox News.
Most House representatives are members of the Republican club. The club has a proven method for attracting members. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is a branch of the party that helps elect Republicans to the House of Representatives. It, and the National Republican Committee, which helps provide national leadership to the Republican party, are adjacent to the Capitol Hill Club with a bridge connecting the club to the Republican offices. When the NRCC identifies potential winners for a Congressional seat, the club helps acclimate the candidates to using its facilities just as a member would—like a home away from home—whether it is having coffee, using meeting spaces, networking, etc. The future member of Congress learns how to use the club to their benefit.
One of the club’s biggest assets is its networking opportunities. Retired Congressman Dick Armey (R-Texas) famously said that being at the club during the right two hours during the week can truly pay off. Because of its location, culture and purpose, the club is an important networking and socializing hub in Washington.
Symbiotic Relationship with Congress
Understanding how Congress works also requires flexibility at the club. When Congress has a late session, the club makes special accommodations. The club monitors the situation on the Hill and prepares for a surge of members who need to be served within an hour in order to get back to work.
On occasion, members of Congress will call Lawson to arrange for meeting space on short notice. Lawson does everything he can to avoid saying “no,” not only because they are members, but also important people in the country’s lawmaking process. This level of care also applies to members of Congress who are on a tight schedule; therefore, the club will expedite services like meals for them. Other club members are accommodating and understand this wrinkle within the club culture.
Lawson and his staff are respectful of members’ time and influence. Despite Lawson’s proximity to the nation’s leading lawmakers, he is an onlooker on the process. He has political leanings but sees the club through the eyes of his general manager role. That separation has helped him cultivate one of the leading clubs in the region.
Like the Capitol Hill Club, the National Democratic Club is a conveniently located spot for members of Congress, lobbyists and other Washington workers to unwind and dine.
The National Democratic Club is smaller than the Capitol Hill Club and is always striving for continual growth. The club regularly hosts social events and provides a comfortable venue for members of Congress, lobbyists and other Hill workers to relax.
The NDC’s social functions focus heavily on politics. The club’s biggest events connect to the city’s most popular political festivities, including the annual Congressional Baseball Game, election watch parties and debate parties.
Like the GOP’s elephant mascot, the Democratic donkey is heavily featured at the club including on napkins, pint glasses, murals and more. The club physically embodies its party colors by regularly featuring blue and a portrait of late House Speaker Tip O’Neil hangs at the club.
Cary and Colley believe the club is becoming the party’s social hub. Colley came into a club that was at a much different financial position than its Republican counterpart. The NDC had undergone dramatic turnover among its management and Colley and his strong team, in particular Assistant General Manager Marlena Navarro who supports key functions across the club, have helped lead the NDC into more prosperous times by instituting strong club management principles. Like Lawson, managing the club effectively is the first priority over politics.
In addition to personally inviting members of Congress, the NDC hosts quarterly prospective member events that share the value of the club and has a very active board that recruits new members.
The National Democratic Club is adjacent to the National Democratic Committee, like the Capitol Hill Club is to the NRCC. The relationship between the two is strong. The club has several members who work at the Democratic National Committee. The Committee hosts many meetings at the club.
Crossing the Aisle
Each club’s managers are club veterans. Lawson has been the general manager of the Capitol Hill Club for two decades and Colley joined the NDC in 2016 after working at other local clubs like The University Club of Washington DC, and The City Tavern Club.
The environment in which these two clubs operate suggests their relationship should be adversarial—two political clubs located within two blocks of each other, managing institutions with membership bases that are in opposition with each other in their social and professional lives—however, Lawson and Colley see themselves as club professionals and colleagues within the industry.
Colley regularly consults with Lawson to identify ways to grow the club and to discuss future plans. The relationship between the two clubs has grown since Colley began at the NDC. The clubs’ relationship extends further as Cary has known Lawson for more than 30 years, and club Presidents Cary and Magill are also good friends. The GMs and presidents regularly engage with each other and schedule lunches several times a year.
Both club presidents agree that the strong relationship between the two clubs is based on their similarities and missions. Magill notes the relationship is truly to build bridges and to represent a rare example of cooperation and partnership in a town often divided.
The clubs sponsor numerous events with more planned in the future. They each host parties for the annual Congressional Baseball Game, which takes place at Nationals Park in Washington. This bipartisan tradition between Democrats and Republicans began in 1909 and both parties are tied at 42 wins apiece. The Capitol Hill Club provides pre-game snacks, beverages, and transportation to and from Nationals Park for the many club members and Congressional staff attending the game. The NDC hosts a watch party for members to view the game and, in recent years, celebrate the victory afterward.
The two clubs also host the annual flag football game with a bipartisan tailgate, an upcoming clothing drive that supports Women Giving Back & the Aleethia Foundation, and this year they are introducing the Red Meet Blue Bash mixer featuring a live band, food and cocktails. This is the first year the mixer will be supported by both clubs. One of the NDC’s most important events is its annual Tip O’Neill Golf Tournament, held this year at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Md., in which both clubs’ members play.
These events add value for both clubs’ members, providing mutual benefit and an opportunity for members of each club to enjoy time with each other. The ideas for these functions stem from the Capitol Hill Club’s committees and leaders. Seen as an opportunity to give value to both clubs, Lawson and the Republican club will reach out to Colley at the Democratic Club to propose the event and each time Colley and the Democratic Club has said yes.
Interestingly, the two clubs also share members. Primarily government consultants, these members view their memberships as opportunities to network with members of both political parties. In fact, Magill has been a member of the National Democratic Club when he worked for his previous employer.
Both Magill and Cary admit the country is more divided than years past. Both the structure of politics and political discourse have exacerbated the schism. However, in a city that is the focal point of this strain, the Capitol Hill Club and National Democratic Club, located steps from the U.S. Capitol, have provided the model for working together and looking past differences. The clubs have built a strong relationship that will continue to grow.
Phillip G. Mike is NCA’s senior communications manager and managing editor of Club Director. He can be reached at 202-822-9822 or [email protected].