Joe Lieberman ordered the “Regular People” special one last time at the Athenian Diner Wednesday.
He made his last five stops Wednesday (in all five U.S. Congressional districts) as a sitting U.S. senator to diners across Connecticut to say “thank you” to voters. He also said “good-bye” to what has become a new tradition for politicians seeking to present a picture of listening to everyday constituents about how to govern.
Lieberman has done that since his second year representing Connecticut in the U.S. Senate. First elected in 1988, he retires next week after 24 years in office. All that time he has made a point of stopping at diners to check in informally with voters.
His staff alerted the press to Wednesday’s stops as it has throughout the years. The stops in part project a populist picture to the broader public. One that counteracts the image of spending most of the time in the elite D.C. confines of the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body,” aka The U.S. Senate, aka a millionaire’s club fawned over by lobbyists and special-interest groups at $100 or $1,000 breakfasts and PAC banquets.
The technique has spread to other states, across party lines. Essex County, N.J., diners found Republican U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen showing up along with their blue-pate specials earlier this year, for instance. He followed in the footsteps of the late New Jersey Democratic U.S. Rep. John Adler’s 2010 diner tour, current New Jersey Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett’s 2012 summer diner tour, Pennsylvania Republican U.S. Rep.-Elect Scott Perry’s 2012 diner tour, to name a few.
Lieberman’s successor in Connecticut. Democratic Sen.-Elect Chris Murphy, wasted no time launching diner and deli stops of his own. (Read about that here.)
Lieberman said the diner stops have sometimes proved as valuable as expensive public-opinion polls. They’ve offered him unfiltered access to what people are truly thinking, he said.
Lieberman New Haven visit to Wednesday to at the Athenian on Whalley Avenue was, by his staff’s estimate, somewhere around diner stop number 180 during his tenure.
It reunited Lieberman with Athenian owner George Daouts (pictured) ...
... and daughter Evie Douats, who have owned the popular hangout for 30 years, since before Lieberman went to Washington. Lieberman and his family used to be regulars at the diner, not just for official visits. “Joe’s my buddy,” George said.
Lieberman stopped by John Healy’s table as Healey finished up his daily plate of scrambled eggs. Healey, owner of City Point Construction and a Republican who said he has always voted for Lieberman, told the senator his business is still hurting amid the economy’s fledgling economy.
Lieberman shared yuks and memories with retirees Doug Fortune, Robert Luciani, Lefty DeFrancesco, and Al Correro. The group gathers every morning at Athenian to “solve the world’s problems,” said Fortune, a former New Haven fire battalion chief. The group includes Democrats, Republicans and Independents, Fortune told Lieberman.
Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-Independent who has made bipartisanship his foremost message in recent years, didn’t miss a beat. “You could probably do better than the U.S. Congress,” he said.
Rabbi Rick Eisenberg (at left in photo with Joe and Hadassah Lieberman) invited the senator to a current events group he runs for recovering addicts at the APT Foundation.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done,” the rabbi concluded.
“You know,” Lieberman remarked, “on the diner tour you don’t expect to receive a brucha [blessing].”
After hitting a dozen of so tables, Lieberman discussed his experience over the years with diner politics.
“I was looking for a way to meet regular people,” he recalled. “A lot of times groups come to my office, organized groups, which is good. That’s my responsibility, to talk to them.
“I actually did some town hall meetings my first year. They were OK. But I was finding that the same organized interest groups that were coming to my office were coming out in disproportionate numbers to the town hall meetings. I wanted to find some more informal place to meet people, just regular people, and hear their views.
” ... Somebody gave me the idea, ‘Go to diners; have a cup of coffee.’”
Why not hit McDonald’s instead? “The diner is a place where people come and sit and hang out for a while,” he replied. The diners function as “communal centers,” he said. “They are comfortable places. Even when I’ve been at my most controversial, the dialogue at the diners has been really civil. People haven’t always agreed. There’s a tone, maybe because they’re around a table. They have food and cup of coffee.”
He’s learned a lot over those coffees in the 180 or so diner visits, Lieberman maintained.
For instance, in the 1990s Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal, diner patrons offered a clear message: They were “upset” with the president. But “very few of them wanted him to be impeached. Because they felt he had made a mistake but that he was a good president.” Lieberman ended up making an influential Senate floor speech excoriating his fellow Democrat for immoral behavior but stopping short of calling for his resignation or impeachment.
“I sometimes used to tease my longtime pollster Stan Greenberg [of New Haven] that actually I got very similar results from my diner tours than I got from my polls,” Lieberman said. “And the diner tours cost a lot less money.”