The Community’s Coach

By Elysha Tenenbaum

Published on 2/15/2006
Roll Call

For those in the highest professional and political tiers of the Nation’s Capital, work is stimulating, challenging, and filled with opportunities to affect the major issues of the day around the nation and the world. But work here can be all consuming, affording little chance to meet and exchange ideas with others of differing outlooks. For more than a decade, professionals of every political persuasion have found common ground at the Institute for Education (IFE), a non-profit, 501(c)3 charitable organization.

Tennis coach Kathy Kemper (center) addresses guests such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (second from right) at one of her monthly bipartisan breakfast meetings geared toward helping out the community.

The Community’s Coach February 15, 2006 By Elysha Tenenbaum, Roll Call Staff When it comes to bipartisan community building among Washington, D.C., elites, the way to get the ball rolling is to bring the ball to the debate, so to speak. Or at least that seems to be the philosophy of tennis coach Kathy Kemper, the Washington networking guru who hosts monthly “schmoozing” and policy discussion power breakfasts with high-profile politicians, business executives and journalists across the political map.

The goal is to encourage cross-party dialogue in a cordial environment.

And decades of coaching and community building have deemed Kemper worthy of claiming authority on that oft-lacking element in politics called “civility,” according to her Capitol Hill friends (who affectionately call her “Coach”). Kemper says the same code of conduct is expected of any good sport on the court.

“Civil behavior is very similar to good sportsmanship,” she says. “One is considered in the sporting arena and one in the business-political arena.”

Each of the INFO breakfasts, part of Kemper’s nonprofit Institute for Education, kicks off with a hearty “Welcome, sports fans!” from the bubbly host. They’re invite-only, off the record and feature speakers from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Kemper has Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), White House Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua Bolten, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on her radar to speak this year.

Those with a seat at the table — either in the Capitol’s LBJ or Madison rooms, or at the luxury Mandarin Oriental Hotel — are about two-thirds regulars and one-third newcomers.

If you’re making headlines on the Hill, you’ll most likely get in invite. Otherwise the guest list is “very random,” according to Kemper. “If a [board] member would like to invite somebody they’ll suggest a person,” she says. Otherwise it’s word of mouth or on a request by request basis.

Attendees sit through some schmoozing and “buzz” time (engagement announcements, accolades for service, etc.), then hear the featured speaker with time for follow-up questioning.

“It’s pretty informal. No one ever reads anything,” Kemper says. “It’s fun, it’s rigorous. It’s a lot of banter.”

Speakers are usually chosen when their names are topical. Famed journalist Bob Woodward took the podium last year after former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt revealed himself as Deep Throat, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was asked to speak following her lead role in investigating federal response to Hurricane Katrina. There’s also the apolitical speech, such as Ginsburg’s sharing of the after-hours social life of a Supreme Court justice with her court peers — pot-lucking and community building, Kemper style.

Economics and baseball were the topics of the most recent breakfast, held on Jan. 24. The 30 or so attendees, from ambassadors to lobbyists, closed their discussion with an amateur rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” — of course conducted by regular breakfast attendee Maestro Leonard Slatkin, music director for the National Symphony who was being honored by D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D) with a key to the city. Kemper started the “Ballgame” singing tradition last year to usher in the season.

It’s an example of how Kemper “connects people in interesting and different ways that are more fun or more engaging, that cross boundaries,” says eight-year INFO member George Vradenburg, former AOL executive vice president who now delves into several Washington philanthropic projects. “She’s not a partisan political player, though she’s fascinated by politics. She’s trying to take some of the bitterness out of the city right now.”

Williams came on board years ago as an INFO regular. He’s among a handful of speakers with repeat performances — they’re usually one-timers. The breakfast is forum for his annual “State of the Info Address,” a primer on the status of District affairs. The mayor, incidentally, is a big fan of Coach.

“Coach is a great friend to our city,” Williams said of Kemper in a statement. “She’s really a magnet for bringing people together around Washington — irrespective of party affiliation.”

The tradition started more than 15 years and 163 breakfasts ago after Kemper found herself coaching Washington insiders like former Secretary of State George Schultz and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski at the posh Chevy Chase and Mount Vernon clubs. In the early ’80s, even political rivals played on the same court, Kemper says.

“I would set up doubles games and it never made any difference in those days whether you were a Republican or Democrat,” she says. “It just didn’t make any difference. The doubles games were dictated on skill, if they would be good competitive doubles games.”

A seed of an idea was born after Kemper’s business executive husband, Jim Valentine, suggested she bring some of her “big-shot tennis pupils” over to a breakfast with a small group of his Washington business cohorts. After several requests for invites, what started off as a low-key get-together evolved into what is now a Washington institution, and incidentally a must go-to for high-powered Washington newcomers.

The breakfasts have kicked off a “pay-it-forward” crusade of good deeds with Kemper at the helm. Her nonprofit fronts the bill for the fruit cups and muffins each month (15 years ago they served eggs benedict and sausages) with a request for donations to the institute for one of its many community-building or education causes. (Donors get either Ace, Eagle or Grand Slam recognition on her Web site.)

But indirectly, INFO networking has reverberated to philanthropic projects across the globe. When Carter Pate of PricewaterhouseCoopers moved to Washington a year and a half ago from the company’s Texas office, a few phone calls requesting an “in” with a Washington power network led him to Kemper’s voice mail. He landed on the guest list for a breakfast and got chummy with a breakfast attendee, who later introduced him to a circle close to the Chinese ambassador. So when Kemper later happened to mention to Pate that she was looking into bringing the Chinese language to Washington International School curriculum as part of an institute project, Pate made a few calls.

“The next thing I know the embassy is behind trying to get Chinese taught at the local schools,” Pate says.

That’s the thing about Coach. “She’s the hardest person in Washington to say no to,” he says. “She knows what she’s doing and she makes very persuasive arguments and she’s a player.”

Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.

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