Derek Kilmer says he’s the neat one.
“I probably have a bit more clutter in my bedroom than he does, but I would say the sink is Denny Heck territory,” said Kilmer.
Since getting elected together in 2012, the two freshmen House of Representatives Democrats from Washington state have shared a two-bedroom luxury apartment on 5th Street NW in the District’s Chinatown neighborhood, a 1.7-mile drive to the Capitol. They pay $3,090 a month for the ninth-floor unit, which includes parking but not utilities.
The place has been cleaned only once. And Heck says that’s only because his wife, Paula, suggested hiring someone to do it in December, after the congressmen had lived there a year.
Kilmer was skeptical at the time.
“Honest to God, his reaction was: ‘Why would we do that?' “ said Heck, describing his roommate as “tighter than a tick.”
“Fiscally conservative, I prefer,” Kilmer said.
“The truth is, I turned out to be neater than he is and he will admit that,” Heck said.
“I won’t admit that,” replied Kilmer, adding that he’s vacuumed the apartment a couple of times but has never used the stove.
Congress keeps no statistics on how many of its members share living accommodations, but members come up with all sorts of arrangements.
Before moving into the White House in 2009, then-Sen. Barack Obama lived alone, renting a bedroom in a Capitol Hill house that his wife, Michelle, visited but refused to stay in. It once caught fire, but Obama wasn’t home.
One of the longest pairings may involve New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, who’s roomed with California Democratic Rep. George Miller since 1982. When Miller announced his retirement in January, Schumer tweeted: “Seeking roommate. … Lover of cold cereal a must.”
In 2011, an ethics group complained that House offices shouldn’t be used as dorms or frat houses after it was disclosed that more than 30 male members – including Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who would be the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2012 – had been sleeping in their offices to save themselves money.
Kilmer said he’d never considered the office option.
“We have mice,” he said.
“Are you going to say the second part – about having a phobia?” Heck asked him.
“Yeah, that’s not my thing,” Kilmer said. “Rodents are not my thing.”
Accustomed to relatively quiet neighborhoods back home, both men said that one of the biggest challenges had been getting used to urban noise. Heck opted to keep a fan running.
“It took me weeks and weeks to get adjusted to sirens all night long and people screaming on the street,” he said.
Kilmer and Heck said they worked a minimum of 70 hours a week, earning the minimum annual pay of $174,000. Heck said they used the apartment mainly for sleeping, usually leaving by 7:30 a.m. and returning by 10 p.m. Heck drives to work, while Kilmer walks. The white walls are mostly bare, and on a recent evening an unused Crock-Pot sat on top of the refrigerator.
“We’re here 10 minutes a day, awake,” Heck said.
The two have never had a sit-down meal at their apartment. Kilmer said he ate toasted blueberry waffles in the morning. Heck likes waffles, too, and keeps a supply of Skinny Cow fudge bars, which he eats every night.
One unpopular item in the freezer: two bags of green beans, which Heck said had gone untouched for a year.
“Sixteen months, actually,” Kilmer said.
Friends for years, both served as state legislators, though they’re a generation apart: Heck, of Olympia, is 61; Kilmer, who lives in Gig Harbor, is 40.
“I know he looks older,” Heck said.
Not counting his wife, Jennifer, Kilmer said, Heck is his first roommate since his senior year of college, while Heck had his last roommate in 1984. Their wives found the apartment when the congressmen came to Washington, D.C., for freshmen orientation.
Kilmer said it was an easy decision to pair up.
“If I’m going to be 3,000 miles away from my family, I’d rather not come back to an empty apartment,” said Kilmer, who uses FaceTime to talk to his two young daughters every night.
Since getting elected, both congressmen have stayed in Washington, D.C., for only a couple of weekends, back in October, when the federal government shut down for two weeks.
They fly together every week Congress is in session, usually leaving the Seattle airport at 8 a.m. on Mondays and returning to the state on a 6:40 p.m. flight on Thursday.
“I did 150,000 miles last year,” Heck said.
Both said the five-hour flights were worth it, even though they’re among the least influential members of Congress: first-term Democrats in a Republican-led House. Heck, elected to fill a newly created seat, ranks 382nd in seniority, while Kilmer, who replaced longtime incumbent Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks, ranks 391st.
Heck offered a serious assessment of his relationship with Kilmer, saying: “It means a lot to me to able to share living space with him. … This is a tough working environment.”
Kilmer followed quickly with a joke.
“For me, it’s mostly miserable,” he said.