- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

If you want a friend in Washington, the saying goes, get a dog.

If you want a connection, go to the gym.

“It’s a wonderful networking opportunity,” said Richard Strauss, president of Strauss Radio Strategies. “I’ve definitely furthered deals. I meet high-level and influential people here, and it’s a good way to touch base.”

Gyms and health clubs have become the new Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce and three-martini lunch, all rolled into one.

Mr. Strauss is a member of the Sports Club/LA, a downtown Washington health club in the Ritz-Carlton hotel where Mayor Anthony A. Williams, talking head George Stephanopoulos and Dan Glickman, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, have been known to work out.

Muscling your way to the top requires stamina and sweat. “Everyone is so busy now,” said Mr. Strauss. “If you can see someone at the gym, you kill two birds with one stone. We all have our BlackBerries. We’re like-minded.”

In the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, Capitol Hill passed a new law barring registered lobbyists who are former members or officers of the House and their spouses from using the House gym, located in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building. The measure was regarded as superficial by some who insist that important business does not get done on Stairsteppers.

“I think it’s kind of silly,” said former Virginia Rep. Tom Bliley, a Republican who has belonged to the House gym since 1981. “I’m not saying it never occurred, but I was never lobbied there and I never lobbied anyone.” Mr. Bliley said he used the House gym “mostly to take a shower, and keep a fresh shirt and underwear in the locker.

But others — those who are familiar with bonding over barbells — said the reform will definitely put a crimp on business as usual.

How much lobbying actually took place in the House gym?

“I’m sure as much as possible,” said David Zeve, a fundraiser for the nonprofit Nature Conservancy who had just finished his workout the other day at the Sports Club. “They’re going to do whatever they can do” to get close to elected officials.

Mr. Zeve said he “absolutely” has met important contacts at the gym. “You meet and work out with someone … people can do business that way.”

Garen Singer, 26, a speechwriter in a communications firm, was just coming out of the locker room, her brown hair tied into a ponytail. She agrees that the gym offers effective networking opportunities.

“I see it happen all the time. There’s this NPR lady who I was trying to talk to. I do try to get the machine next to her.”

Miss Singer doesn’t see anything wrong with lobbyists sweating out deals with legislators. “Isn’t that the point of being a lobbyist? To use any connections you have.”

Like the Senate barbershop and the White House mess, the House gym provided a casual atmosphere and immediate access to the power elite. Former lawmakers — who have not yet been formally told to clear out their lockers — seem offended by the new rule.

In a letter to the newspaper Roll Call, former Republican Rep. Jim Lightfoot of Iowa said “it appears the inmates have finally taken over the asylum.”

Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, announced on the House floor: “Perhaps the modification could be that any former member using a piece of equipment would have to yield to a current member.”

Most observers in Washington said the gym is a natural place to stay connected. “It’s a wonderful way to meet people,” Mr. Strauss said. “And to do business as well.” He usually stays after a workout to visit the Sports Club cafe. “You always meet people waiting in line for food.”

Mornings and evenings are the best times to catch the boldfaced names. And, certainly, there are rules of decorum. It’s considered gauche to give out one’s business card, for example. Or weaseling your way into a basketball pickup game just to get some face-time with the guy who wouldn’t return your e-mail.

“At this particular gym, it’s incredible,” said Jocelyn Rock, 37-year-old assistant general manager of the Palm restaurant. “I see all my customers. A lot of VIPs.”

“Some people come here to work out,” said Avery Mann, 35, a publicist for Fox Broadcasting. “Some people come here to network and visit.”

If all else fails, get your trainer to make the introduction.

“A lot of times I’ll do the networking,” said Sports Club personal trainer Karim Jabbar. “If I know a guy who can do real estate, I’ll get him together with a guy I know who’s into mortgages.”

He laughed, marveling at the labyrinth of opportunities. “My clients alone could probably run the city.”

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