PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Sheldon Whitehouse is one of the most outspoken Democrats in the U.S. Senate, popping up regularly on MSNBC to criticize oil companies, conservative judges and Donald Trump.
At home in Rhode Island, Whitehouse is also a wealthy blue blood, descended from pillars of the old Yankee Protestant establishment. His father Charles Whitehouse, a career ambassador, was a member of Yale’s famed Skull and Bones society; his great-great-grandfather, Charles Crocker, made a fortune as a railroad tycoon. (Whitehouse’s wife, Sandra, also hails from a wealthy family.)
Those two identities put the senator in the hot seat Monday as national media outlets zeroed in on the 65-year-old’s membership at Bailey’s Beach Club — an establishment where Newport’s upper crust has gathered since the Gilded Age — in light of his support for liberal policies on racial justice.
Bailey’s, whose formal name is the Spouting Rock Beach Association, has no spokesperson and doesn’t disclose its membership roster. Chartered by the General Assembly in 1897, it has been a summertime retreat for Astors and Vanderbilts, as well as Rhode Island notables such as the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell and the late Gov. Bruce Sundlun. (The latter was one of its few Jewish members.)
“Bailey’s Beach is an exclusive private beach club,” the organization’s website says. “We offer our membership and their guests lunch and dinner service daily, as well as two full service bars, swimming pool, tennis courts, and nearly a 1/4 mile of private beach front.”
Bailey’s took in over $3 million in 2018, with $2.4 million of its receipts coming from member dues and fees, according to its most recent IRS filing. The tax-exempt organization reported 123 employees.
The club has long been a subject of fascination as a window into the Newport old guard. A 2003 New York Times piece reported, “Diversity … has made scant inroads on the Newport of Bailey’s Beach, whose membership profile might be defined less by who people are than what they are not. ‘Jewish, yes,’ Audrey Oswald, a lifelong member replied, when asked about the club’s demographic composition. ‘Blacks, not really.'”
(The paper went on to note that the late Eileen Slocum, a legendary Newporter and Bailey’s member, did have biracial grandchildren who visited.)
The current focus on Bailey’s came when the New York Post, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico and other national outlets picked up comments Whitehouse made last week to the website GoLocalProv.
Asked whether Bailey’s has any non-white members currently, Whitehouse replied, “I think the people who are running the place are still working on that, and I’m sorry it hasn’t happened yet.” He declined to condemn Bailey’s, describing its existence as “a long tradition in Rhode Island” and suggesting its members “just need to work our way through the issues.”
On Monday, Whitehouse’s office walked back the senator’s initial comments, saying Bailey’s currently and previously has had members who are racial minorities.
“The club has no such restrictive policy,” Whitehouse spokesperson Meaghan McCabe said in an email. “The club has had and has members of color. The senator has dedicated his entire career to promoting equity and protecting civil rights, as his record shows.”
Still, no one disputes that the membership at Bailey’s is heavily white overall, and Whitehouse has faced criticism on the topic before. “When I read about this club I suddenly realized I’m just a guy from Coventry,” said former state Rep. Bobby Nardollilo in 2017, when he was making an unsuccessful bid for the GOP Senate nomination against Whitehouse.
The Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC joined the criticism of Whitehouse on Monday, issuing a statement that said in part: “After a year of protests calling for change, Senator Whitehouse is in a position to make it happen and has passed the buck. It’s past time that Senator Whitehouse used his platform and make his actions match his rhetoric.”
Keith Stokes, an eighth-generation Newport resident who is an expert on the history of the city’s African American community, argued the focus on Bailey’s was misplaced. He pointed out that his grandfather and great-uncle were members of an exclusive all-Black organization, the Newport Ugly Fishing Club, that was renowned during the same era when Bailey’s was founded.
“A United States senator being a member of a private club is not new history or new news,” said Stokes, who said he has dined at Bailey’s in the past. “I don’t care if you’re talking about the Rhode Island of 2021 or 1881. And personally, professionally, I would judge any senator based on what they are doing as a United States senator on public policy to advance African heritage issues.”
“That’s how I would set performance measurements as far as the issues of racial equity,” Stokes added.
Whitehouse’s congressional colleague, fellow Democrat David Cicilline, came to the senator’s defense on Twitter, writing Tuesday: “Sheldon Whitehouse has been a fighter for racial and economic justice his whole life. Full stop.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook