DES MOINES – Friendly banter mixed with the squeak of tennis shoes echo down the deserted hallways of Merrill Middle School as a custodian zips past the gymnasium on his floor cleaner.
For 29 years Iowa Republicans and Democrats have shed their legislative agendas to play pick up basketball together every Wednesday evening during the legislative session.
“It's a good time for the legislators to get away and get out of that partisan world that they're in,” said Nathan Cooper, education director with the Sheet Metal Contractors of Iowa, an organizer of the weekly rendezvous.
Lawmakers, staff members and lobbyists alike say they like the opportunity to hang out in a relaxing environment, get to know each other and get a good work out.
“I've got great relationships with the folks across the aisle because you do things like this,” said Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa. Bowman was invited to join in the sport by a fellow senator when he was elected to the Legislature in 2010.
Although the players vary each week with schedules and athletic ability, Cooper said there's usually 10 to 15 people that show up to play in teams of four on short court.
For Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, the Wednesday nights give him a chance to continue a sport he played throughout school. Dix, who does play often, said it's a good way to relax.
“My head works better and I enjoy the relationships we build,” he said.
Cooper said despite lawmakers and lobbyists in the room, everyone agrees to keep work at the Statehouse.
“We have two rules. The first is no injuries and the second: no politics,” Cooper said. “We keep it as far from the political realm as possible.”
Bowman said it gives people an opportunity to instead talk about where others grew up and how their favorite sports teams are doing.
Jerry Fitzgerald, lobbyist and former lawmaker from Fort Dodge, said the weekly games have always limited shoptalk. Fitzgerald was among the first few players and joined soon after the weekly get together began in 1985.
The organized legislative basketball outting was held in other locations before settling at the middle school but Fitzgerald said aside from that, nothing has really changed. The 72-year-old participated in the pick up games until two years ago when schedule conflicts became too many.
“It was great. Nobody lobbied it was just frankly about exercise,” Fitzgerald said, adding he never thought it would continue on for this long.
He said he hopes to stop by again soon some Wednesday, although he doesn't now if he'd get in the game or just watch from the sidelines.
Havin a day job that often includes disagreement and partisanship, Bowman said on the court differences are set aside to form a team.
“We're together on this and even though we have differences on some philosophical or political things we can still come together,” Bowman said.