A Wider Circle, the Silver Spring-based nonprofit that provides furniture, job training and other services to impoverished people around the region, will honor Speaker of the House Paul Ryan at its annual fundraising gala next month.
It was a controversial choice, according to a listserv message the group’s President and CEO Mark Bergel published Friday.
“By recognizing Congressman James Clyburn and Speaker Paul Ryan, we are not endorsing all of their policies,” Bergel wrote. “We are, however, recognizing two individuals who are addressing poverty as a central issue in our country. These two see it differently from one another but I know that they are committed to finding common ground, and so am I.”
Bergel, who founded the organization in 2001, told Bethesda Beat Friday that he’s received about a dozen emails and phone calls this week from supporters of the nonprofit unhappy with the selection of Ryan because of the Wisconsin Republican’s conservative political views.
“It’s a bit of an electric time in our country right now. People are on edge, and for good reason, but my job here is to bring people together,” Bergel said. “So while I’m not surprised by some of the feedback, I still believe if we can bring people into the room and share the work we’re doing and our approach to ending poverty and someone like Speaker Ryan can hear that and we can engage in conversation, then I’m all for it.”
A Wider Circle has honored Republican lawmakers before. Last year’s event included Republican South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott as well as Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
Ryan is scheduled to appear and speak at the Sept. 20 event, where he’ll be honored along with Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina.
The reception and dinner at the Marriot Marquis in Washington, D.C., is A Wider Circle’s biggest fundraising event of the year, with event sponsorships running at $50,000 and including companies such as Pepco, FedEx, T-Mobile and ExxonMobil. Bergel said it’s expected to draw between 600 and 700 people.
The nonprofit is based in a 38,000-square-foot Brookville Road facility it bought in May 2015. Each year, it furnishes the homes of more than 16,000 families transitioning out of shelters and escaping domestic violence.
In 2014, Bergel was honored by CNN and selected as Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonian Magazine.
Bergel said he and his board took an interest in Ryan in part because of the proposal for fighting poverty he unveiled in June while visiting a nonprofit in Anacostia. The plan referenced improvements needed for early childhood development, career and technical education and support of at-risk youth but no specific legislative recommendations.
Ryan’s proposal also said the country needs to reform “one-size-fits-all, top-down government programs” aimed at those in poverty in favor of “public-private partnerships to bring out the best of what each sector has to offer.”
Ryan’s poverty plan elicited criticism from those who said it endorsed “seriously flawed” ideas that would in some cases “do more harm than good” and make it harder to access federal welfare programs.
Bergel said he doesn’t agree with all of Ryan’s ideas on poverty or some of his stances on other issues, but that “I do know I’m glad to see him talk about poverty as much as he is.”
“A lot of people, in this area especially, find some of his views to not be in sync with theirs,” Bergel said. “We’re clearly not endorsing all of his views, but I have watched him over the years and I think there’s more to his views on poverty that has yet to come out yet. I meet about 20,000 people a year who live in poverty and they need for us to be together. I think if we can come together and really dialogue on this in an honest way, I believe we can make progress.”
Bergel said he met with Clyburn to discuss the gala but hasn’t met Ryan.
“The speaker’s schedule, as you can imagine, is quite busy, but I don’t think he would’ve agreed to this were it not for his interest in working on poverty,” Bergel said. “I look forward to building a relationship and I think a key for our work going forward is to be connected on both sides of the aisle.”