Young po­lit­i­cal odd cou­ple epit­o­mized bi­par­ti­san hope

Con­ser­va­tive pun­dit, lib­eral ac­tivist shared lives

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY JES­SICA CON­TR­ERA

It was so Washington, the way they met. She was on the dais at a panel dis­cus­sion on media and pol­i­tics, hold­ing forth knowl­edge­ably; he was in the au­di­ence, smit­ten. At the steak­house din­ner that fol­lowed, Jake Brewer got the courage to walk up to Mary Katharine Ham and give her the hope­ful, am­bigu­ous let’s

get a drink some­time line. Then he e-mailed her an in­vi­ta­tion to a tech pol­icy lun­cheon. Mary Katharine Hamand Jake Brewer share a mo­ment at Two Medicine Lake, Mont., in 2010. She never replied.

Soon af­ter, he was sit­ting at El Ta­marindo in Adams Mor­gan with a friend, and she was beel­in­ing for their ta­ble. She greeted the mu­tual friend at his ta­ble — and only then turned to him with a friendly stare of non-recog­ni­tion.

“Hi,” she told Jake. “I’m Mary Katharine Ham.”

It was all so very Washington, for a cou­ple who would be­come any­thing but: a con­ser­va­tive pun­dit mar­ried to an Obama White House staffer.

When Jake died Sept. 19— af­ter he col­lided with a car dur­ing a can­cer char­ity bike ride in Mount Airy, Md. — the 34-year-old tech­nol­ogy ad­vo­cate was mourned on both MSNBC and Fox. His boss, Pres­i­dent Obama, re­leased a state­ment: Jake was proof, he said, that this gen­er­a­tion is “ca­pa­ble of mak­ing a dif­fer­ence.”

In a su­per­fi­cial sense, Jake Brewer and Mary Katharine Ham were a true D.C. ano­maly. Bi­par­ti­san re­la­tion­ships have al­ways been fairly rare in Washington, where pol­i­tics are felt so strongly, and Jake and Mary Katharine were far more than Elec­tion Day par­ti­sans: Their dis­parate ide­olo­gies shaped their in­creas­ingly high-pro­file ca­reers.

But they didn’t see it that way, Mary Katharine re­called at their home in Alexandria re­cently. Just be­cause pol­i­tics de­fined their jobs didn’t mean it de­fined their lives.

Mary Katharine, 35, leaned back into their sag­ging brown couch, tuck­ing her feet to sup­port her preg­nant belly— their sec­ond child, due in De­cem­ber. She was wear­ing Jake’s cow­boy boots, with his wed­ding band on a chain around her neck.

It was here on this couch that they had their last fight, where she apol­o­gized for start­ing a po­lit­i­cal spat — she can’t re­mem­ber now what it was about — when he was just try­ing to tell her about his day at the of­fice. She scrolled through her phone, look­ing for that ini­tial e-mail she had ig­nored back in 2008. “Would be great to have you there,” he had writ­ten. “Not only to have a bit of both sides, but mostly just ’cause I think you’d be great to have re­gard­less.”

She laughed: That was so Jake, al­ways ea­ger to hear the other side even while com­mit­ted to his own. He seemed like a suc­cess at any­thing he tried — triathlons, pho­tog­ra­phy, singing— and found the same ease in the ad­vo­cacy work that brought him to the Dis­trict: first en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism, and later gov­ern­ment trans­parency and tech­nol­ogy, ris­ing to a top job at the pe­ti­tion Web site On the side, he co-founded an immigration ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion, De­fine Amer­i­can.

Mary Katharine came to Washington a few years ear­lier in 2004, frus­trated with a small-town news­pa­per job that gave her lit­tle out­let for ex­press­ing the con­ser­va­tive ar­gu­ments she was crav­ing. She had grown up in the strug­gling public schools in Durham, N.C., which con­vinced her that big­ger doesn’t mean more ef­fi­cient in gov­ern­ment. A job at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion led to opin­ion-writ­ing gigs; her gift for fasttalk­ing rants and punchy come­backs earned her reg­u­lar TV ap­pear­ances op­po­site Bill O’Reilly and the ladies of “The View.”

Their lives, like their ca­reers, could have ex­isted in these two worlds apart, sur­rounded mostly by peo­ple who agree with them. Washington makes that very easy.

In­stead, they went on a date to an In­dian res­tau­rant, which led to a ping-pong bar and stay­ing up un­til 4 a.m. talk­ing about the an­nual Mule Day fes­ti­val in Jake’s home town of Columbia, Tenn.

They were both al­most 30, and it just worked. They had the same level of energy and tal­ent. As one friend would later say, they were mag­ne­tized from the start.

But the ele­phant in the room wasn’t the silent type. Com­menters on lib­eral e-mail groups fret­ted that the re­la­tion­ship was a bad idea, that she would snoop through his e-mails, do some­thing to hurt the cause.

When Jake called his mother, Lori, to tell her he’d met some­one beau­ti­ful and smart and funny, he paused to say, “But there’s some­thing you should know. She’s uh . . . she’s . . . uhm. . .”

Lori screeched: “Oh, my God, she’s Repub­li­can!”

Both came to un­der­stand the un­der­pin­nings of each other’s point of view. Mary Katharine be­lieved strongly that the big­ger gov­ern­ment gets, the less ef­fec­tive it is. Jake be­lieved strongly that gov­ern­ment can be a pow­er­ful force for good.

He thought she was some­times too cyn­i­cal. She some­times told him he was too naive. One fight went like this:

Mary Katharine had read a story about the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion con­sid­er­ing lim­its on the amount of salt al­lowed in pro­cessed food. She be­gan a tirade about fed­eral over­reach and the lack of ev­i­dence sodium is ac­tu­ally bad for you.

Jake, rhetor­i­cally: Are they go­ing to stop me from adding salt to my food?

Mary Katharine: No, but these are free com­pa­nies, in a free coun­try, they should be able to add salt to what­ever they want, so things can taste de­li­cious and be amaz­ing.

Jake, an hour later: Can we please just go to sleep. It’s just salt.

Mary Katharine: It’s not salt, it’s FREE­DOM.

Some­times the spark was the word “illegal” when re­fer­ring to im­mi­grants. Or a Thomas Fried­man col­umn. Or fed­eral pro­cure­ment pol­icy.

They both wanted a gov­ern­ment that worked bet­ter for peo­ple; they dis­agreed on how to make that hap­pen. That’s the root of so much par­ti­san­ship. But in­stead of call­ing each other evil, or tak­ing out tele­vi­sion ads to knock each other down, they got mar­ried.

Clay John­son, the friend who rein­tro­duced them that night at the res­tau­rant, gave the toast. It was shortly af­ter Obama had re­leased his birth cer­tifi­cate to Amer­ica/Don­ald Trump, so John­son joked that Mary Katharine was so con­ser­va­tive, she in­sisted on get­ting both the long and short-form ver­sions of their mar­riage cer­tifi­cate. Only half the room laughed. They con­tin­ued to shine in their re­spec­tive ca­reers, their pro­files gain­ing in stature while they worked on the re­la­tion­ship. Mary Katharine gave up on ask­ing Jake to clean his beard trim­mings from the sink. Jake gave up on per­suad­ing Mary Katharine to buy mal­bec in­stead of caber­net. They both learned that it was im­por­tant some­times to turn to the other in the mid­dle of the night and apol­o­gize for be­ing a jerk.

Mar­ried, they could have cap­i­tal­ized on their across-the-aisle re­la­tion­ship — made it their “brand,” a la James Carville and Mary Matalin, with a book deal or a TV gig per­haps.

But any­thing like that, Mary Katharine said, would have felt false. They weren’t at com­plete op­po­site ends of the spec­trum; they weren’t even sure they be­lieved in a spec­trum. They were fiercely in­de­pen­dent, just as they wanted their kids to be. Mak­ing them­selves a bi­par­ti­san sideshow would only get in the way.

Their daugh­ter, Ge­or­gia, was born in Au­gust 2013. That night, Lori e-mailed Jake a few pages of her jour­nal from 1981, the year he was born. A first-time mom at 24, she had writ­ten him a let­ter for when he be­came a fa­ther.

“Of all the things you will learn and dis­cover,” it said, “I hope one thing for you: that you learn love is the key.”

Ba­bies, they knew, don’t care if you’re a lib­eral or con­ser­va­tive, or if health-care re­form is a good idea. They care if you tuck them into the crib at night singing the only song that will make them sleep, which for Ge­or­gia was the Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather.”

So when Jake was con­tacted by the White House with a job of­fer that would re­quire less trav­el­ing than he was do­ing for, he de­cided the time he’d get to spend with Ge­or­gia out­weighed the awk­ward­ness of telling his col­leagues his wife worked for Fox.

He be­came a se­nior tech­nol­ogy ad­viser on June 3, right be­fore Mary Katharine pub­lished her first book, “End of Dis­cus­sion,” a cri­tique of po­lit­i­cal correctness, and right af­ter they learned she was preg­nant with their sec­ond child. When asked to choose a photo he wanted to hang over his desk, he picked out a frame of Obama and Bi­den cheer­ing on a vet­er­ans’ char­ity bike race.

The photo was de­liv­ered to his of­fice on Mon­day, Sept. 21, two days af­ter he died.

Mary Katharine couldn’t bring her­self to go, so Lori went to the White House to pick up his things. They gave her the race photo, and a yel­low sticky note they found on his desk that said, “Cul­ti­vate the Karass.”

“Karass”? Oneof his co-work­ers looked up the word. It came from Kurt Von­negut’s novel “Cat’s Cra­dle.” In it, a karass is de­scribed as a team of peo­ple on a mis­sion from God that they’re not even awar eof, who share a cos­mic link­age that’s not ob­vi­ous on the sur­face.

You might have found a mem­ber of your karass, Von­negut wrote, “if you find your life tan­gled up with some­body else’s life for no very log­i­cal rea­sons.”



Mary KatharineHa­mand her hus­band, Jake Brewer, ex­press their joy with new­born daugh­ter, Ge­or­gia, in Au­gust 2013. Jake was killed Sept. 19 af­ter col­lid­ing with a car dur­ing a can­cer char­ity bike ride.

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