Tying the Knot: From crossing paths to joining lives

Tying the Knot: From crossing paths to joining lives
City Councilor Kirk McPike and Cantor Jason Kaufman with their beagle, Punky, during their engagement photo shoot. (Photo/John Bartenhagen)

By Olivia Anderson | oanderson@alextimes.com

Sometimes the best love stories don’t start with love at first sight, but after vaguely recognizing each other following a prior run-in.

Technically, City Councilor Kirk McPike and Cantor Jason Kaufman’s first date was in February 2016, but they had unknowingly met eight months beforehand at a fundraising event for then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

On the official date, Kaufman instantly recalled that in June 2015 he tried to talk to Congressman Mark Takano (D-CA), but McPike, Takano’s chief of staff, wouldn’t let him because Takano was about to step onstage to speak.

“[At the event we were] pretty much standing next to each other and on the date I realized, ‘Oh, I recognized him from that!’” Kaufman said.

He didn’t reveal this tidbit to McPike until later on, nor his immediate inkling that the two would ultimately end up together.

“I knew we were going to get married as soon as we met,” Kaufman said. “That’s not a joke. I really did know that.”

In the meantime, though, the couple kept seeing one another, gradually laying down the bricks of what eventually became the foundation of their relationship. Much of their early dating experience included watching lots of Marvel movies and closely following the 2016 election.

The couple dated for several years before tying the knot in 2019.

Aside from the results of that election, which McPike referred to as “scarring,” the relationship’s nascent phase was fairly smooth sailing, but McPike recalled one notable hiccup early on that involved Kaufman meeting his dog, Punky.

“Jason came over to my place for dinner and she was in a mood. She’s a very friendly dog, but she was kind of stand offish towards him,” McPike said. Punky warmed up to Kaufman after that initial meeting, and the three quickly grew close.

Things were going so well, in fact, that Kaufman decided election night in November 2018 would be the perfect time to propose. The couple was at an event supporting San Antonio, Texas congressional candidate Gina Ortiz Jones. She had previously been endorsed by Equality PAC, a nonprofit organization Takano co-chairs that supports openly gay candidates.

However, Jones did not win the election, which cast a somber shadow over the room and threw a wrench in Kaufman’s plans.

“Kirk didn’t understand why I was so upset,” Kaufman said.

“It was already strange because we were winning the majority, my boss [was] going to be the chair of the veterans committee, but I’m embedded in a campaign that’s losing, which is awkward, and then Jason seems even more upset about it [and] I didn’t quite get it,” McPike added.

Kaufman, meanwhile, quickly realized while watching Jones concede that he would need to pivot. About two weeks after election night, he showed up at McPike’s apartment with cupcakes in tow – one of which held a proposal ring inside.

One year later, on Oct. 26, 2019, the couple married at Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel, overlooking the Air Force Memorial. The ceremony was cherry blossom-themed, filled with specially made yamakas and officiated by Kaufman’s friend, Rabbi Melissa Simon. Takano read several passages from the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage in 2015.

“It was clearly written to be read at weddings,” McPike said.

As a cantor at Beth El Hebrew Congregation, Kaufman knows a thing or two about leading events like weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. He said relinquishing that sense of control for his own wedding was at times difficult, but made easier by the fact that the marriage officiant was a close friend with whom he attended seminary.

“It was super interesting and at times challenging not to be officiating at my own wedding. Working with a friend was so wonderful. … She did a beautiful job,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman and McPike got married on Oct. 26, 2019, serendipitously the day of Hillary Clinton’s birthday. (Photo/John Bartenhagen)

There was also the task of designing an interfaith wedding that incorporated Jewish traditions as well as McPike’s Texas roots and Kaufman’s New York roots. They accomplished this through various personal touches such as creating a cocktail hour playlist filled with John Williams music from some of their favorite movies.

“We wanted the wedding to really be representative of both of us, which I think it was in lots of little small ways,” Kaufman said. “ … It was a Jewish wedding, but we worked to make sure it was as expansive and inclusive as possible, which was something that was important to both of us.”

Another goal was to forge genuine connections with every person they hired for the wedding. Indeed, the wedding chef later joined the couple’s synagogue, the wedding planner attended one of Kaufman’s concerts and the videographer captured McPike’s City Council campaign launch.

While planning the memory table, Kaufman was upset to learn that he didn’t have a single photo of just him and his late grandmother, only one with the two of them surrounded by other people. As a surprise gift, the couple’s wedding photographer photoshopped the group photo to make it look like it was just Kaufman and his grandmother sitting next to each other.

“It’s just something that always puts a smile on my face,” Kaufman said, looking back. “We really wanted to like all the people who were part of the day and two years later I still love them all and would recommend them to anyone.”

At the end of the big day, they handed out party favors of “campaign buttons” made from the couple’s engagement photo shoot. The buttons say “McPike Kaufman 2019” with an American flag and show the couple gazing into the distance.

“We thought they looked so much like campaign photos so we had the idea to turn them into buttons,” McPike said.

Politics has played a significant role in the couple’s relationship, from that initial first meeting at the Clinton fundraising event to their serendipitous wedding date on Oct. 26, 2019, which also happens to be Clinton’s birthday. It wasn’t intentional – the date was the only Saturday that worked with their schedule – but the couple did invite Clinton, though she did not actually attend the wedding.

McPike and Kaufman handed out “campaign buttons” as party favors at their wedding.

When it comes to politics, McPike said that he and Kaufman are very aligned.

“Good thing we agree,” McPike laughed. “Being in the D.C. area and with me being chief of staff to a member of congress, it was sort of inevitable that that would all be part of the deal. Jason’s had to do a lot of door knocking, first with me on various races, and then for me.”

McPike was elected to Alexandria City Council in November 2021 and the process leading up to it involved many hours of campaigning. Kaufman, who worked on the campaign team, said that he was not only happy to help, but endlessly inspired by his husband’s dedication.

“I worked hard for his campaign, but the reason it was easy to work hard for his campaign is because nobody worked harder than Kirk. If I was putting in 10 hours, it was because he was putting in 24 hours,” Kaufman said.

And Kaufman’s schedule isn’t exactly empty either. In addition to leading services at Beth El Hebrew as a cantor, during the pandemic Kaufman recorded and live streamed a full concert from their living room to raise money for ACT for Alexandria’s COVID-19 relief fund.

“He spent so long working to get everything right with his guitar and music and the singing. They raised a significant amount of money for the charity and helped our city as we were entering a really tough period,” McPike said.

Between both men’s jobs and myriad responsibilities, time is a commodity and quality time with one another isn’t always an option. Therefore, Kaufman and McPike rely on text messaging and phone calls to check in when they can’t be together.

“We’re always communicating. We’re never not communicating. There are some days where we spend more physical time together than others, but there’s never a day where we’re not in close communication, [saying] ‘Hey, what do you think about this? What do you think about that?’” Kaufman said.

But when they are together, date nights often include home-cooked meals. McPike, who Kaufman called an “excellent chef,” most enjoys making French, Italian and Chinese food. For Valentine’s Day this year, McPike provided Kaufman with a list of countries to choose from and he made a dish from whatever country Kaufman selected. The winner was Taiwan, and the dish was Mongolian beef.

In terms of what makes their relationship work, both pointed to fostering trust, having independently robust careers and, of course, Punky the beagle. Yet maybe there was also something more intangible that caused their paths to cross, starting with the event in 2015 and then throughout the course of the relationship.

For example, Kaufman used to work in Alexandria but lived in D.C. and McPike lived in Alexandria but worked in D.C.

“We would wave to each other on the bridge every morning as we were driving [to work],” McPike said.

Perhaps more uncanny is that their very first summer as a couple, McPike, who is Irish, had a trip to Israel, and Kaufman, who is Jewish, had a trip to Ireland.

“It’s kind of funny,” Kaufman said. “It was meant to be like that.”