The members of Kappa Alpha Theta, a sorority at the University of Missouri, needed a new social chair. And only one of their sisters—a blond, gregarious member named Claire—would do.
Under the leadership of the woman who would go on to be Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri—who now sits on committees including Armed Services—Thetas paired with the coolest fraternities on campus to enjoy a social calendar full of dances and parties. At least that’s how Leslie Myers, a Theta two years younger than McCaskill, remembers it.
“When we were voting on social chair, the whole room goes, ‘Claire,’ ” says Myers, the owner of a marketing firm in St. Louis. “She knew more people on campus than the other 100 people in Theta combined. It was our most fun year. If we wanted to do it, Claire could make it happen.”
McCaskill isn’t alone on Capitol Hill in having a Greek affiliation—nearly a third of members of Congress were in a fraternity or sorority, says Peter Smithhisler of the North-American Interfraternity Conference. That percentage is much higher than it is in the general population. Fraternity and sorority life seems to provide good preparation for a career in politics: The Greek process starts with a period of schmoozing, relationship building, and attempts to remember names and faces.
For the House majority leader, Maryland’s Steny Hoyer, the experience provided lessons in governing. “My membership in Sigma Chi is one of the big reasons that I am where I am today,” says Hoyer, who joined his frat at the University of Maryland. “I learned about working toward a common goal with brothers from every background. We learned that even when we disagree, we are still brothers and have a responsibility to pass that lesson of community on to others.”
Those values were tested in Georgia in 2008, when two politicians, who knew each other from their Sigma Chi days at the University of Georgia, faced off in a Senate race.
“I first met Saxby when I was going through fraternity rush,” says Jim Martin, the 2008 Democratic challenger to Georgia senator Saxby Chambliss. “He was tall and looked old.”
Martin lost to Chambliss but says the race was never personal.
“When I was president of my Sigma Chi pledge class at UGA, Saxby’s wife, Julianne, was our pledge-class sweetheart,” Martin says. “I have always liked them.”
In Congress, Chambliss joins a number of other prominent Sigma Chi brothers, including Hoyer and senators Lamar Alexander, Bob Corker, John Ensign, and Mike Enzi.
Senator Johnny Isakson, also of Georgia, isn’t a Sigma Chi—he’s a Sigma Alpha Epsilon—but he knows Chambliss and Martin from their frat days.
“Johnny was there at the same time, so we all knew each other,” Martin says.
Representative Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia was a Kappa Kappa Gamma at Duke in the 1970s, but she’s still making Kappa connections: “Kappas are everywhere. I can start singing the Kappa song and always find someone nearby who knows it.”
This article first appeared in the October 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.