Hatch’s hangout and fundraising hub
The Monocle is a quick stroll from the Hart Building, where many senators have offices.
Published: June 12, 2012 01:59PM
Updated: September 11, 2012 11:34PM
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Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune The Monocle, just a block from Sen. Orrin Hatch's office in Washington, D.C., is a favorite spot for his fundraising breakfasts. He's got two more scheduled just before the June 26 primary.

Washington • Just one week before Utah’s primary election, Sen. Orrin Hatch will walk under the famous green awning of The Monocle, a stately restaurant in the shadows of the Senate office buildings.

He’ll climb a short staircase and pass his own dated photo on a wall dotted with political heavyweights before he slips into a private dining room where lobbyists for Coca-Cola and General Motors will sip juice and eat eggs, their checkbooks at the ready.

And two days later, Hatch will return to the same restaurant for another breakfast fundraiser, this time hosted by the nuclear industry and the National Football League.

To say Hatch is a regular at The Monocle doesn’t go far enough. He’s held 28 events here since the beginning of 2011 and that’s before the fundraisers slated for June 19 and June 21. He hasn’t held more than two in any other location.

That means The Monocle is the setting for more than 60 percent of Hatch’s fundraisers, according to federal disclosure reports.

The only other senators who are even close are Montana Democrat Jon Tester and Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, who both have held 11 shindigs in one of The Monocle’s private rooms.

“I don’t know, maybe Senator Hatch likes the food there, but he probably likes the location more,” said Kathy Kiely, of the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks congressional fundraisers. “If it is not officially on the Senate campus, it might as well be.”

Actually, it is on Senate property.

The late 1800s building once served as a boarding house before Connie and Helen Valanos turned it into a restaurant in 1960, where it quickly became the go-to place for senators. John F. Kennedy always requested a table by the small bay window in the years before he became president, and Hubert Humphrey was known to make the rounds from table to table almost nightly.

In 1972, Congress instructed the Architect of the Capitol to buy the building from the Valanos family. The government paid $500,000 and signed a lease, making The Monocle the only freestanding restaurant operating on Capitol property. The soft yellow two-story building seems out of place next to the imposing Capitol police headquarters on one side and a sprawling Senate parking lot on the other.

The restaurant is about 1,000 feet from the Hart Building, where Hatch and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, have their official offices.

Hatch’s campaign manager Dave Hansen said the senator likes the ability to walk from his office for a morning fundraiser, and he’s comfortable with the staff.

“The Monocle is just convenient,” he said. “And they always do the event very well.”

Maitre d’ Nick Selimos has taken care of The Monocle’s customers since 1974, including Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., who slipped in for a quiet dinner on a recent weekend night. Selimos and his staff are trained to keep what they overhear confidential and to take care of an elected official who might lose track of time.

Selimos said the House staff calls him before each recorded vote so he can round up any errant members and get them on their way. The Senate used to do that, too, before it issued each member a beeper.

Selimos remembers Hatch coming in often with his friend the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., but said the Utahn stops by now mostly for his breakfast fundraisers.

Kiely, the managing editor for Sunlight’s reporting team, has noticed that many senators seems to find a favorite fundraising spot and stick to it, such as Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who favors Charlie Palmer’s Steak house.

“It is like our senators get into a culinary rut,” she said.

But the Sunlight Foundation didn’t create its Political Party Time database to track restaurants. Rather, the point is to see how often members of Congress hold fundraisers, and if possible, who else is in attendance. To do this, they rely on D.C. insiders surreptitiously giving them invitations. This means, their data are far from comprehensive, but it does provide the best public tool to see who is fêting lawmakers.

And they have received a smattering of Hatch invitations, including the upcoming events set before Utah’s June 26 primary election.

Hatch will meet with lobbyists from Coca-Cola, Caterpillar, General Motors and an association representing fertilizer companies on June 19. Two days later, he’ll have a nearly identical event sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the National Football League and the Utah company Headwaters, which sells technology to turn coal into liquid fuels.

“Most of the people who give money in politics are not giving because they have a warm and fuzzy feeling about democracy,” said Kiely. “It is because they would like to exercise some influence.”

Many of the groups hosting Hatch events have interests in tax policy or health reform, issues over which Hatch has significant influence through the Finance Committee, where he is the top Republican.

Giving right before an election is also a way to get noticed. Hatch is facing his first primary since his 1976 race, and he has a huge financial advantage over his GOP challenger Dan Liljenquist. The most recent financial report, due shortly before the state convention in April, showed Hatch with $3.2 million in the bank compared with Liljenquist’s $240,000.

Hansen, Hatch’s campaign manager, said the senator doesn’t need the haul from these late fundraisers to pay his staff or air TV ads. And he’ll likely have enough money to fuel a general election campaign, if he survives the primary.

Instead, Hansen said the events are shoehorned into Hatch’s Senate schedule because they were easy opportunities to raise funds.

“Have you ever heard anyone in a campaign say they have enough money?” Hansen asks rhetorically. “So if we have the opportunity to hold a fundraiser, we will.”

mcanham@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mattcanham