Don Pesci: Diner politics in the Nutmeg State



People in Connecticut like their diners. There are no fewer than 28 all-night diners in the state. It’s where you go to shed your problems over an omelet and hash browns, accompanied by a fresh cup of coffee and, if you are lucky, the companionship of a friend or two. During election time, this holy solitude is broken by lean and hungry politicians on the hunt for votes who have turned out to mingle with the proletariat. Politicians too, it would appear, are just like the rest of us.

The most accomplished of them do not eat when they are conducting business. Imaging is important, just ask U.S. Sen. Dick Blumenthal, about whom it is said that the most dangerous spot in Connecticut is that between Blumenthal and a television camera. Politicians are more attentive to their weight than to their religious prescriptions, and because many of them are life-servers -- the average age of a member of Congress is 57 – caloric intake more important to many of them as avoiding the near occasion of sin.

Some politicians are temperamentally gregarious; one thinks of Democratic U.S. House of Representatives John Larson of the 1st District, who appears genuinely to like people, even some Republicans. Others, forbiddingly aloof, have a rough time of it when they commingle with the general public; conviviality is not their cup of tea. But, longing for votes and campaign contributions, they solider on, smiling, engaging in chit-chat and looking for all the world like a naked manikins pulled off the floor and gathering dust in lightless corridors of an out-of-business retail establishment. There are quite a few of these in Connecticut.

For some reason, politicians like to perform in diners, small, intimate and politically safe venues. There are no grumps here, especially early in the morning, when the customers have had sleep enough and are munching on bread and eggs with a side of sausage or bacon. A diner is the perfect theater for a sweaty politician, a little town hall full of people with their best manners on whose politics is inscrutable.

Though patrons in diners are more than willing to affect affability, dialogue with strangers beyond the usual pleasantries is rare. Politics recedes into the background, is seen as a potential menace on a far horizon. The people the politicians talk to in diners are well behaved and well fed. A customer does not frequent his favorite diner to start a quarrel with a cardboard-cutout senator, particularly after he has stowed away his omelet and a second cup of coffee.

There are, by the way, crucial differences between town hall crowds and those who frequent diners. Serendipity reigns supreme in diners; not so in town halls – not any more. With a little help from an underpaid staff, any politician worth his salt should be able to stuff a town hall meeting with like-minded folk gathered together to give democratic unction to the politicians’ favorite hobby horses, whether the group be, as is the cause with progressives, unionized employees nursing a grievance against Big-Business or, as is the case with alt-rightists, counter-revolutionaries who want to send establishment Republicans and Democrats to a frozen gulag in Vermont – average snowfall 89.25 inches per year, and also home to socialist commandant Bernie Sanders.

When he bid goodbye to a life in politics, in 2012, former U.S., Sen. Joe Lieberman did a farewell tour of diners in Connecticut. White's Diner in Bridgeport, the Athenian Diner in New Haven, Norm's Diner in Groton and Shady Glen in Manchester were all on Lieberman’s itinerary. Lieberman’s career in the U.S. Senate began in 1988. During the course of his career, he had visited 130 diners in more than 60 Connecticut cities and towns.

In 1988, Connecticut was just emerging from a lingering recession, William O’Neill was governor and Connecticut’s income tax was only a glint in  future Gov. Lowell Weicker’s eye. Mr. O’Neill’s budget was $7.5 billion, and he was staring down a deficit of $1.5 billion. In 2017, Connecticut is ensnared in yet another recession, the state’s biennial budget is $40 billion, and its projected deficit for the next fiscal year is $5 billion.

Economist Don Klepper-Smith has pointed out that Connecticut is usually first in, last out during national recessions; the state has yet to recover jobs lost during the current recession, which officially ended more than six years ago. As the French say, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Diner owners in Connecticut have not yet responded to an increase in the minimum wage to $15 dollars an hour by replacing their wait staff with kiosks, but the wait staff in diners are growing impatient with politicians and never-ending taxes and the shortage of high paying jobs in Connecticut that send wave upon wave of customers their way.

Connecticut politicians these days prefer town hall gatherings they can stack with their supporters to diners where, during upcoming elections in Connecticut, the crackling air may be charged with righteous dissent and acrimony – not from the wait staff, who in diners are usually unfailingly cheery, even during brimstone showers, but from that guy in the booth who has been forced to take a lower-paying job after his company moved to South Carolina. He’s been thinking of joining his children who moved to North Carolina two years ago, but just now he’s happily concentrating on his eggs and bacon.

Don Pesci is a Vernon, Conn.-based political and cultural writer.