MetroWest Daily News: Lessons from beer and lasagna

August 5, 2009
By Julia Spitz

Mouthing off usually leads to trouble. Last Thursday it led to a pair of sitdown summits.

The one at a Sudbury apartment, involving a state senator, a single mom and some lasagna, didn’t get a lot of attention, but unless you’ve been hanging out on Jupiter, you’ve probably heard more than enough about the one at the White House involving beer, a police officer from Natick and a Harvard professor.

More than a week’s worth of daily accusations, outrage and speculation and “breaking news” coverage ensued after Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, responding to a report of a possible break-in, arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr., and President Obama weighed in with the opinion police “acted stupidly.”

“It certainly was interesting” to see a member of the extended family become the center of a national debate, said Framingham Selectman Dennis Giombetti, whose cousin, Donna, is Crowley’s wife.

“It took on a life of its own.”

As the situation became increasingly surreal, Giombetti said he had a feeling what would happen next. Watching the morning news with his wife, he heard Obama’s comments about beer diplomacy, and “I said, ‘I think Jimmy and Donna are going to the White House.”‘

As for finding out what happened at the meeting, Giombetti said he wanted to give the Crowleys a few days to unwind after the intense media coverage.

“I didn’t want to bug him,” he said. But he does know “my aunt was thrilled” her daughter and grandchildren “got to go to the White House and meet the president.”

Even if it was a highly unusual way to get an invitation.

Then again, the “lasagna summit” invitation was a bit unusual, too.

It started with a story in this newspaper about a state report on helping people “break the cycle of poverty.”

“I pay close attention to articles like this as it effects myself and my son,” Paula Mackenzi wrote in her account of events on her blog,

“I didn’t set out to live in poverty,” she said in a phone conversation Tuesday, but divorce can change the financial outlook in a heartbeat.

“You want to get off welfare. You want to get off food stamps,” and yet some of the rules for getting assistance discourage recipients from moving forward, she said.

She agreed with the report’s findings that people should be able to save for their children’s education without being penalized, and that owning a reliable car is necessary for getting and keeping a good job.

But, she said, some of the fixes seemed too far down the road.

So she sent an e-mail to state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, who represents her district and was co-chairman of the state Asset Development Commission that issued the report cited in the July 10 News story.

She was surprised to get a call from Eldridge’s aide. She was more surprised to get a call from Eldridge the same day.

“I wasn’t disrespectful,” she said, but she ended up telling him, “You’ll never know what it’s like until you live my life.” She also said, “Why don’t you come to dinner sometime?” And “he said, ‘All right.”‘

“I’m usually out six nights a week,” said Eldridge, but with summer being less busy, he had an opening July 30.

“Oftentimes we don’t pause to think about how much it means as legislators to sit down and listen,” he said. “Paula didn’t ask me to do anything. It wasn’t about a specific bill. She just wanted a chance to tell her story.

“That was really powerful to listen to how the current system is broken,” he said.

“When he left, I was still stunned a Massachusetts senator came and sat down with me and listened to me,” said Mackenzi. “The fact that he accepted (the offhand invitation) meant I had a voice.

“It would be nice if more politicians would listen to the voters.”

Even if no beer is involved.

“He got water,” Mackenzi said with a laugh as she rattled off the list of juices and Crystal Light flavorings she had on hand.

The chicken cacciatore didn’t work out as well as she’d hoped, she said, but Eldridge seemed to like the lasagna, and “I did send him home with a plate.”

All Gates and Crowley got was beer.

“It was this weird, ironic thing,” said Mackenzi. “Both events, one very non-controversial, one very controversial, were taking place at the same time.”

And she ended up learning the lesson some hoped might be the “beer summit” takeaway.

“I was so worried all day. How do I act? What do I do?” After chatting with Eldridge, “turns out he and I are not so different after all.”

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