Politics Doesn't Trump All: A Bipartisan Love Story
He advises a powerful House Republican. She recruits women into politics after years as a consultant for Democratic candidates.
He grew up conservative and likes to joke about the "money tree" at the Democratic National Convention. Her childhood home was politically progressive and included an autographed portrait from the Clinton White House.
Wes McClelland is policy adviser to Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 3 Republican in the House. Jessica Grounds is executive director of the nonprofit Running Start, which brings young women into the world of political leadership.
And they've been a bipartisan couple in Washington for the past three years.
Their relationship is not unique; high-profile Democratic-Republican relationships and even marriages have always been part of the Washington mix. But they acknowledge that lasting cross-politics relationships seem to becoming tougher to find in a time of deep partisan differences nationwide.
"I would wager to guess there are a lot of bipartisan relationships," says Grounds. "But less and less over the years. Especially in Washington."
A recent Pew Research Center study found partisan differences have grown dramatically in recent years.
"As Americans head to the polls this November, their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years. Unlike in 1987, when this series of surveys began, the values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides."
Grounds and McClelland aren't claiming their relationship has given them any particular wisdom about those national dynamics. But it has reinforced their beliefs about working together for what's important.
"We argue, often over Morning Joe," Grounds says.
"It can get heated at times," McClelland agrees. "As far as criteria that I'm looking for, it was always an intellectual curiosity and I think that's also what sustains us. That we're still wanting to learn about each other's point of view."
McClelland has been known to tease that Grounds has the "Democratic talking points in her pocket." (If so, those pockets are bound to be the pockets of a very crisp, fashionable blazer. McClelland, on the other hand, favors a traditional dark Capitol Hill suit.)
Family is important to the couple, and they both have a strong Christian faith — a common ground that eases the tension of their disparate professional identities.
And even the staunchest Democrats in her family have come to accept McClelland, Grounds says.
When McClelland introduced Grounds to his conservative family, they were less surprised than one might think. Apparently he proved to his parents over the years that he likes a good challenge, he says.
"I'm a challenge; I'm quite a challenge," grins Grounds. "For me, being kind of a high-powered, intense, always-going person, it's nice to be with someone who complements me and can kind of understand that.
"One thing Wes and I agree about and we talk about is the founding of our country and the need for the way the system works," Grounds says. "The strength of the two-party system."
The couple did, at one point, question whether their relationship could survive stark political differences.
"I remember pretty vividly having a pretty harsh, strong throw down, sort of about really core philosophy," Grounds says. At the center of the argument was the question: "Could we really get past that difference in, sort of, approach and understand each other's core value at the end of the day?"
The answer was a resounding "yes," precisely because, as Grounds says, "we still have the same values of wanting to make this country a better place."
McClelland calls partisanship part of the "natural ebb and flow" of national politics. And he's more likely to blame the changing expectations on Congress for some of the rancor on Capitol Hill.
"Being in Washington has become kind of a bad thing," McClelland says. "Lawmakers used to move their families here, their kids used to go to school, they used to go to baseball games together and have those interpersonal relationships that had then made it easier for them to get work done here — because they knew where each other was coming from. They knew they weren't bad people, they knew they had good kids and they were good parents.
"We went to this idea that Congress had to be in session 300 days a year for it to be effective, but then that means they had to go home and be in their districts every weekend so they were back living in their districts and not having that time to get to know each other and build those interpersonal relationships," he says. "This town is absolutely based on relationships."