These days, most senators and congressman spend their weekdays in Washington and return to their home districts over the weekend. That’s true for Vern Buchanan, the freshman representative from Sarasota’s Congressional 13th District. But unlike some of his fellow politicians, who batch it in rented quarters or even share places, Vern and his wife, Sandy, have created a real home in Washington, sharing what he calls "an adventurous chapter in their life."
The Buchanans have established their Washington home on Capitol Hill, on a leafy block of narrow, two-story, 19th-century brick rowhouses in the shadow of the Longworth House Office Building. Built in 1890, their rowhouse has a slate-gray brick exterior and a dark red front door, an American flag flying at its side. Pale pink roses climb the waist-high wrought-iron fence that separates the tiny front yard from the sidewalk. The Buchanan bought the house from its longtime owner, Republican Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale, who was defeated last year in his bid for a 14th congressional term. A former landscape company owner, Shaw nurtured lovely gardens on the postage-stamp-size property.
It’s a five-minute walk to the Capitol even in the most inclement weather, and other politicians have set up encampments up and down the street. Two doors to the west, for example, Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Dick Durbin of Illinois share a rowhouse with Reps. George Miller of California and Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts. Delahunt and Schumer sleep on cots in the living room. (“Think MTV’s Real World with a slovenly cast of Democratic power brokers,” wrote The New York Times last year about the frat-house living arrangement.)
The tone at the Buchanans’ is much calmer. At just 1,300 square feet, this house is a far cry from their Longboat Key estate, which is over 10 times larger, but Sandy says, “I’ve fallen in love with the size; it’s easier to maintain.”
After the Buchanans bought the rowhouse last January, two weeks after Vern’s inauguration, Sandy had to work fast: Her goal was to have it livable in 30 days. Clay and Emilie Shaw had rewired and replumbed the house, bumped out the bay windows and installed a new kitchen 10 years ago, so most of her changes were cosmetic. On the advice of her “good friend,” Sarasota designer Kurt Lucas, she stripped the floral wallpaper and painted walls deep olive and taupe, swapped out several light fixtures and hung drapes in quiet shades of aqua, tan and cream.
Sandy furnished the new home in a high-low mix of antiques she uncovered in her shopping forays through Georgetown and off-the-rack furniture and accessories from national chains. An oversized, Louis-style gold-leaf chandelier from their Florida home hangs over the dining table; the fireplace screen, on the other hand, is from Target. Tasteful and eclectic, “the décor is probably called ‘life,’” she says with a laugh.
Downstairs is a small living room with a brick fireplace and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves along one wall, a compact kitchen and a dining area that leads to the back yard. Upstairs are the master bedroom, two small baths and an office furnished with a desk and pullout couch for visitors. One master bedroom wall is lined with framed preschool-era artwork (“masterpieces,” Sandy calls them) created by their two now-grown sons. “We needed and wanted to have those memories here,” she says. Tucked between the bed and back wall is a massive black massage chair. And here they’ve also placed the only other “furniture” they brought from Florida: two black suitcases that are doing temporarily duty as nightstands.
The two are delighted by their tiny backyard garden and the bit of privacy it affords them. They’ve set out a teak table and chairs, and sometimes Sandy has her morning coffee there. “You don’t feel like you’re in the city at all,” she says. “You can hear the birds, and every morning at seven the bells go off at St. Peter’s Church.”
Sandy says they’ll talk about repainting the exterior and perhaps doing more ambitious decorating later. Already, the November 2008 election looms large, and Buchanan once again will be facing Democratic challenger Christine Jennings. “It’s a contested race, so we don’t know how long we’ll be here,” Sandy says.
As for their new life, the new congressman stays in Washington Monday through Friday, and then flies back to Sarasota on Friday evenings, sometimes as late as 8 or 9 p.m., depending on the time of his last vote. Despite her philanthropic activities in Sarasota—primarily the Caritas ministry for the homeless through First Baptist Church, serving on Mote Marine’s advisory board, and chairing their private family foundation—Sandy comes up with him every week, too. “We’ve done everything together,” she says. “We raised a family together and started businesses together. I made a commitment that we’re going to do this together, too.” One exception to their weekends-in-Sarasota rule: The couple celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary in late September, and his surprise gift to her was a weekend in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley at one of the nation’s most exclusive country inns, The Inn at Little Washington.
Sandy is meeting people at the speaker-luncheons held by the International Neighbors Club and the Republican Spouses Club. She flew up one Sunday last September to play in a charity golf tournament to raise funds for the Capitol Historical Society. “It’s important to have a good networking system,” she says, because, “when you walk into a room, the congressional spouse immediately disappears.” She says she regretfully hasn’t had the time she wants yet to explore the city’s great neighborhoods and museums because she’s been focusing on refurbishing the house. But she loved a trip to the National Portrait Gallery and enjoys researching the history of her neighborhood at the Library of Congress, right around the corner from her new home.
With more than 700 House votes to sort through in just nine months in office, and a crowded social schedule as well, the two say they treasure quiet moments together. On a typical night this fall, they were planning to attend a dinner at the Chinese embassy. The previous night, they’d dined late at the home of a fellow congressman. After dinner, they decided to walk around Embassy Row under the light of a beautiful full moon, soaking in the historic atmosphere. “I thought, ‘We’ve got to do this more often,’” says Vern.
They often dine right around the corner at the Capitol Hill Club, a long-standing social club for Republicans, and they both work out at the Washington Sports Club gym up the block. They haven’t yet had dinner at the White House, but did attend a picnic there and a holiday reception last December for elected officials, and were looking forward to an upcoming tour of the West Wing.
Since he took office, some community leaders back in Sarasota have described Vern as gaining new humility. “It is a changing experience,” he admits. “We both grew up in working-class families, so it’s incredibly exciting, and a challenge, to have the opportunity to give back.” And it’s especially satisfying, he adds, to have Sandy at his side to share the experience and the excitement of creating a new home away from home.