Senator says more about affiliation with elite private club

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse now has more to say about questions raised regarding his affiliation with an exclusive beach club in Newport, Rhode Island, his home state.

He released a lengthy statement Wednesday — days after he had first spoken with a local Rhode Island news site, GoLocal Providence, about the club.

“A representative of a local website recently caught me off guard by asking me about diversity at a beach club to which family members of mine belong,” Whitehouse said. “I was attending an unrelated event and wasn’t prepared for the question.  At the time, I made the mistake of accepting her premise.  I then checked the assertion and was assured that, first, the assertion was wrong, there is diversity in the membership and there are non-white club members; and second, that improving diversity remains a priority and an active task for the club’s new board.  Today, the club’s board put out a statement to this effect.”

CBS News has reached out to Bailey’s Beach Club for comment. The club issued a statement to CBS Providence affiliate WPRI-TV that said, “Recent characterizations in the press and in other commentary about Bailey’s Beach Club are inaccurate and false.” It went on to say, “Over many years, Club members and their families have included people of many racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds from around the world who come to Newport every summer. Our membership comes from all over the globe to our small club and we welcome the diversity of view and background they bring to our community.” 

The club did not supply WPRI with any further information about the racial makeup of its members.

Initially, when Whitehouse was asked by GoLocal Friday if Bailey’s Beach Club had admitted any minorities since the news site had reported on the matter in 2017, he responded, “I think the people who are running the place are still working on that, and I’m sorry it hasn’t happened yet.” When GoLocal first raised the issue of the club membership’s racial makeup in 2017, Whitehouse told the outlet, “I think it would be nice if [Bailey’s Beach Club] changed a little bit, but it’s not my position.” He said he would take up the matter “privately” with the club.

On Monday, Whitehouse told Capitol Hill reporters, “Yeah, I think they got the facts wrong” when asked to respond to the questions raised by GoLocal about the racial makeup of the club, and said the club “informs me that it does, in fact, have diversity of membership.” Pressed on whether he was aware of any members of Bailey’s Beach Club who are diverse, Whitehouse responded, “I believed that there were — I don’t spend a lot of time there; I couldn’t tell you who the members are.”

Spouting Rock Beach Association, the formal name of Bailey’s Beach Club, describes itself on its website as “an exclusive private beach club” with “nearly a 1/4 mile of private beach front,” a swimming pool and tennis courts and two full service bars. 

Established in 1897, club membership consisted of the wealthiest families on the Gold Coast, including the Vanderbilts and the Astors; 100 years after the founding of the club, membership was still exceedingly difficult to obtain, as portrayed in a 2003 New York Times profile of the club. Then, the Times noted, Bailey’s had 468 members and 113 subscribers, with 80 cabanas and 201 changing rooms that could be purchased by members and then passed down from generation to generation — making turnover among its members very rare.

GoLocal Providence reported that Whitehouse gave his membership shares to his wife, Sandra, years ago. On Monday, asked when he had consolidated the membership to his family, he replied, “Don’t recall.” 

Whitehouse also said Wednesday that “there have been calls for me to resign from the club, which I understand.  However, I have no membership to resign, nor will I ask my wife or any other family members to do so.  First, they are on the right side of pushing for improvements.  Second, and more importantly, my relationship with my family is not one in which I tell them what to do.”

There is another private club in Newport that Whitehouse belongs to, which the Democratic senator also brought up in his statement.

“The recent attention to this issue has prompted me to assess all my affiliations and to consider whether any involve inequitable or exclusionary policies,” Whitehouse said. “While I am not a member of the beach club, I do own a boat and belong to a sailing club in Newport.  While this club does not have exclusionary rules for membership, it does lack diversity.  Failing to address the sailing club’s lack of diversity is squarely on me, and something for which I am sorry.  I commit to working with the club and the community to build a more inclusive membership and to better connect with the local community.”

Whitehouse, who has been a staunch civil rights advocate and has spent his career in public service, with stints in state and federal government including Rhode Island attorney general and U.S. attorney before he was elected senator, noted in his statement Wednesday that, as a senator, he has been to try to bring “greater equality of opportunity and outcomes to all Americans.”

He also vowed to continue doing “all I can as Senator” to “work toward greater diversity and justice in all areas of society.”