POLITICS

What Do You Do When Your Ex-Roommate Runs For President?

We talked to Beto O'Rourke's former congressional housemates to find out.
Reps. Jared Huffman (left) and Dan Kildee used to share a Capitol Hill row house with Democratic presidential candidate Beto
Reps. Jared Huffman (left) and Dan Kildee used to share a Capitol Hill row house with Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke.

WASHINGTON ― It lacks the religious overtones of the infamous C Street house where former Sens. Sam Brownback, Jim DeMint and other Republican lawmakers once bedded down. And there aren’t rodents like those seen at the former flophouse of Sens. Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, and other Democratic lawmakers. But tucked into a quiet corner of southeastern Washington is the Capitol Hill row house of Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), and Mike Levin (D-Calif.).

Sharing living quarters, whether in college or Congress, builds personal ties. That’s why, even though the last three are friends with a number of Democrats currently running for president, one ex-lawmaker may have a leg up in winning their endorsement: former roommate Beto O’Rourke.

The three current congressional housemates were gracious enough to invite me over to act as a guest host for Huffman’s podcast, “Off the Cuff.” We talked at length about President Donald Trump, whether they could ever live with a Republican, and all the day-to-day negotiations that come with having roommates, like who’s doing laundry when and how long is your shower going to be. (There’s only one bathroom upstairs.)

But what you won’t hear on the podcast is most of their discussion about O’Rourke. (Huffman was concerned that it could be a rules violation to use a podcast funded through his office for political purposes.)

O’Rourke lived in the house’s midsized room for three years. Kildee took it over after the former Texas representative lost his bid to defeat Sen. Ted Cruz. And Levin, who’s a freshman in Congress and a new tenant since January, moved into Kildee’s old room once O’Rourke moved out. Kildee quips that he upgraded into O’Rourke’s room because it was the “Beto room.”

Jokes aside, Democrats are all in a bit of an awkward position these days when it comes to presidential endorsements. There are a number of current and former colleagues running, and most Democrats are trying to stay neutral for the moment.

Huffman, who recently introduced O’Rourke at a campaign stop in San Francisco, noted his tricky position. Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Eric Swalwell both represent his home state of California, and there are a number of other lawmakers seeking the White House who came into office with Huffman and Kildee in 2013.

“What do you think it is about your class where all of your colleagues are running?” Levin asks.

“We’re just all clearly outstanding,” Kildee deadpans.

Kildee later describes the surreal feeling of actually having a close relationship with multiple candidates who could be president. “It’s the first time we’ve gone into a presidential cycle where I know these people,” he says. “It’s hard to think about people who we used to just hang out with in Congress as the president of the United States.”

But it’s obvious Huffman and Kildee both have a soft spot for their old roomie.

“He was a fantastic roommate,” Huffman says. “Beto really tried to live a normal life when he was here. He would, like, go to the corner market and buy fresh groceries every week, and he would make breakfast every morning.”

They both acknowledge, however, that near the end O’Rourke wasn’t exactly living “a normal life.”

“I would walk in the door, and I would hear these screaming crowds,” Huffman says, explaining that O’Rourke would often do town halls through Skype, stacking books beneath his laptop. “And in each one of these places, there would be thousands of people. And Beto’s talking to them from our kitchen.”

“When I moved in,” Kildee says, “he was already Beto-plus.”

Kildee moved into the house about halfway into 2018, replacing Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.). Another California Democrat, Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, lived in the house before Carbajal took his room almost three years ago. “He’s an opportunist,” Huffman says of DeSaulnier. “He found a cheaper deal.”

The residence itself is a nearly immaculate, three-bedroom row house that Zillow estimates is worth $850,000. Far from a flophouse, it has area rugs ― runners even ― and a nice kitchen curio cabinet displaying various stemware. Huffman, who was an environmental attorney before entering Congress, is the owner of the home, but he says the only way he can make the mortgage is by having housemates.

When Huffman went down to San Diego to campaign for Levin at the end of 2018, he delicately asked what Levin was planning to do for housing. Had O’Rourke defeated Cruz for the Senate, O’Rourke would have remained a roommate. However, Texas being Texas, Huffman started looking for a backup.

The men agreed that, if O’Rourke lost and Levin won, Levin would take his spot.

“I was really bummed out when Beto lost,” Levin says, “but I also said, ‘Man, I gotta call Huffman.’”

O’Rourke still has a few things in the basement, including his bike, and the roommates joke they’re going to put his possessions on eBay any day now.

Overall, the three current roommates say they all get along, and they point to Huffman as the key to their special alchemy.

“He is cooler than the other side of the pillow,” Kildee says. “He’s just a mellow guy. Smart. Nice. No drama.”

Huffman says he picks his roommates carefully, although having three very disparate voter bases, they do have political differences.

Huffman hails from a district with a Partisan Voting Index score of D+22, where he knows the only way he’ll lose reelection is if his Sonoma Coast constituents find out about his penchant for stemless wineglasses. So he’s had the ability to be an outspoken proponent of impeachment.

He also tends to see Trump more as a product of the GOP than as an aberration.

“They all kind of put on the hats,” Huffman says of his GOP colleagues and Trump’s Make America Great Again baseball cap. “And they’ve been wearing the hats ever since.”

Huffman also thinks Democrats ought to pick the presidential candidate they like rather than trying to determine who’s most electable. “This idea that we’ve all got to turn into amateur pundits and try to calculate out all of the third-level political ramifications,” Huffman says, “that’s pretty ridiculous.”

Levin, who’s the most vulnerable roommate coming from a district with a PVI of R+1, skews more moderate. He sees Trump as someone who is very different from the traditional Republicans in his district, who used to send Darrell Issa to Congress every year, and he clearly has electability on his mind with the presidential race.

“I know we’re not supposed to think about electability. However, I think it’s really important. You’ve got to win Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and if you can’t win in those three states, you can’t win the White House,” Levin says, going on to mention pollster Larry Sabato’s take.

Kildee, who seems politically between the two with a district that is D+5 and contains the troubled city of Flint, is open to starting an impeachment inquiry, though not necessarily ready to impeach. “It should be a high bar,” he says.

Kildee also sees Trump as someone who is a different sort of Republican, but also still a Republican. “The biggest shame of all of this is how quickly conventional Republicans showed their true colors, by essentially saying, ’[If] you cut taxes, marginalize anyone you want,’” he says.

The three members are aware of the differences in their districts and because of Levin’s vulnerable status, Huffman defers to him on showering first when they get back from baseball practice so Levin can get to the office sooner and have more time to fundraise later in the day.

“You’re the frontliner, we gotta take care of you,” Huffman says to Levin.

The housemates also have different daily schedules ― with Levin usually leaving around 6 a.m. for the gym, Kildee getting up next, and Huffman last. Although with all three practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game, there’s now an occasional “air traffic control” issue with the shower.

But even with their occasional political differences, shower disputes or laundry backlog ― “I did leave my laundry in the dryer,” Kildee acknowledges when the topic comes up ― they think of themselves as a solid group, even if they aren’t always around to have dinner together.

“There’s a Whole Foods down the street,” Levin says. “Every man for himself.”

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