Close Quarters

Washington’s a small town. Rosslyn’s even smaller.

This illustration can only be used with the Emily Schulties piece that originally ran in the 1/31/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
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Emily Schultheis
Jan. 30, 2015, midnight

One night last March, Tim Miller, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the GOP op­pos­i­tion re­search firm Amer­ica Rising, was de­part­ing what he de­scribed as a “rowdy” staff happy hour at Rosslyn’s Asi­an-fu­sion res­taur­ant, Café Asia. (“It’s Rising Café Asia Happy Hour time,” he’d tweeted earli­er that even­ing, with a You­Tube link to a car­toon man dan­cing to club mu­sic.) Nestled on the ground floor of an of­fice build­ing on Wilson Boulevard between the Itali­an res­taur­ant Pi­ola (home of “Lucky Gnoc­chi Day!”) and En­ter­prise Rent-A-Car, Café Asia hap­pens to be one of the few happy-hour spots in Rosslyn.

Seth Bring­man and Sean Eng­land, two com­mu­nic­a­tions staffers for the su­per PAC Ready for Hil­lary, were snack­ing on half-price spicy Chinese ra­vi­oli and drink­ing Sap­poros with friends a few tables over. They hadn’t met Miller be­fore, but they knew who he was — so when he walked by their table on his way out, Bring­man figured they should in­tro­duce them­selves. “Tim! Seth Bring­man, nice to meet you,” Bring­man said.

“I guess it was then I real­ized that they were right around the corner,” Miller re­calls.

Rosslyn isn’t ex­actly the most hop­ping part of the D.C. met­ro­pol­it­an area. It’s small, has scant din­ing op­tions, and be­comes a ghost town out­side of nor­mal busi­ness hours. (Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand of New York got some flak last year for re­fer­ring to Ar­ling­ton writ large as a “soul­less sub­urb” in her book, but when it comes to Rosslyn, that cer­tainly isn’t far off the mark.)

At the mo­ment, however, Rosslyn is the hub of 2016 activ­ity sur­round­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton. Ready for Hil­lary (a su­per PAC that is work­ing to boost the idea of a Clin­ton cam­paign) and Amer­ica Rising (a GOP firm that has led the charge against her) moved in­to the same neigh­bor­hood in 2013 and have spent more than a year work­ing just six blocks apart. (Ready for Hil­lary has 25 staffers based in Rosslyn; Amer­ica Rising has 50.) And both groups are just a few blocks from Politico, which has a team of re­port­ers de­voted to cov­er­ing 2016.

It’s a weird cul­tur­al quirk of Wash­ing­ton that polit­ic­al op­pon­ents of­ten find them­selves in close quar­ters. But the quar­ters seem es­pe­cially close in Rosslyn, where every­one is go­ing to the same half-dozen eat­er­ies to grab a quick lunch or us­ing Café Asia or Pi­ola for meet­ings with cli­ents or re­port­ers.

“When our re­spect­ive staffs get off the Metro each morn­ing, they turn right [on Wilson Boulevard], and we go left,” Bring­man told me. “We don’t share each oth­er’s polit­ics, but we do share happy-hour spots, ap­par­ently.” (In­deed: between Janu­ary and late Novem­ber of last year Ready for Hil­lary spent $1,936 at Café Asia, per Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion re­ports.) Says Miller: “Our only in­ter­ac­tion is at the vari­ous chain din­ing es­tab­lish­ments in Rosslyn.”

I worked for Politico for three years, so I know the ter­rain well. I used to fre­quent Rosslyn’s Pan­era Bread, Chi­potle, Roti Medi­ter­ranean Grill, and Brown Bag. More than once, I ran in­to Miller out­side the Rising of­fices on my walk home. While re­port­ing this piece, I re­turned to the Star­bucks on North Lynn Street; even after al­most eight months away, the barista re­cog­nized me im­me­di­ately and re­membered my reg­u­lar or­der.

“You have to be care­ful about what you talk about in pub­lic, es­pe­cially if your work fo­cuses on sens­it­ive things like heavy op­pos­i­tion re­search,” says Liz Mair, a Re­pub­lic­an di­git­al strategist who lives and works in Rosslyn. “It’s very, very easy to be sit­ting with your back to the salad bar in the cafet­er­ia in 1100 Wilson and nev­er even clock that someone from Politico is right be­hind you, adding croutons to their plate and get­ting dirt you really don’t want them to have right then, be­cause your en­tire con­ver­sa­tion is aud­ible.”

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Back in 2013, Terry McAul­iffe’s gubernat­ori­al cam­paign was headquartered in the same of­fice com­plex that Ready for Hil­lary now oc­cu­pies. The loc­a­tion — across the street from Politico and loc­al TV sta­tion WJLA (which covered the Vir­gin­ia gov­ernor’s race) — led McAul­iffe aides to warn staffers at meet­ings that they needed to keep quiet at the Star­bucks or Chi­potle for fear of ac­ci­dent­ally giv­ing a re­port­er an un­in­ten­ded scoop.

“Be­ing in Vir­gin­ia shouldn’t lull re­port­ers or op­er­at­ives in­to a false sense of se­cur­ity,” Bren­nan Bil­berry, who served as McAul­iffe’s com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or, told me re­cently. “You’re more likely in Rosslyn than most of D.C. to have your lunch con­ver­sa­tion over­heard by someone you’d prefer wouldn’t.”

Still, both Amer­ica Rising and Ready for Hil­lary say that in­ter­ac­tions between their staffers are rarer than you’d ex­pect. One reas­on may be that there is a Star­bucks a few blocks up Wilson Boulevard that is closer to Amer­ica Rising than the North Lynn Street Star­bucks, which is around the corner from Ready for Hil­lary. And al­though Rosslyn cer­tainly has a more in­tense con­cen­tra­tion of Hil­lary-re­lated activ­ity than down­town D.C. does, there are plenty of non­polit­ic­al people to di­lute the mix. “Run­ning in­to Amer­ica Rising’s Tim Miller in line at Brown Bag was al­ways a pleas­ant sur­prise, but more of­ten, you just end up bump­ing el­bows with a bunch of De­loitte con­sult­ants while try­ing to get a drink at the Con­tin­ent­al,” a former Politico re­port­er told me when I asked for Rosslyn re­col­lec­tions.

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In April, The Wash­ing­ton Free Beacon, the con­ser­vat­ive news site that sent re­port­ers to dig up dirt on Clin­ton at her hus­band’s pres­id­en­tial lib­rary in Little Rock, will be­come the new­est polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion to move in­to Rosslyn, set­ting up shop in the same build­ing as Politico. But its em­ploy­ees may be ar­riv­ing too late to bump in­to their ideo­lo­gic­al nemeses at Café Asia. That’s be­cause Ready for Hil­lary will ramp down its ef­forts and largely cease to ex­ist once Clin­ton an­nounces a cam­paign, as she’s ex­pec­ted to do. Though Clin­ton’s 2008 headquar­ters were in Ar­ling­ton’s Ball­ston neigh­bor­hood, just four Metro stops away, her 2016 ef­fort will re­portedly be based just out­side of New York City.

For the time be­ing, though, the epi­cen­ter of the coun­try’s great Hil­lary de­bate re­mains a small, charm-de­fi­cient en­clave across the river from D.C. “I’m very head­phones in, head down when I’m walk­ing around Rosslyn,” Miller told me. Giv­en who his neigh­bors are, that’s prob­ably a good idea.

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