Politicians complain about the endless chain of mediocre dinners — sarcastically known as the “rubber chicken circuit” — they must attend to raise campaign cash. Not so for Representative John Larson, who’s a regular at some of the Hartford area’s finer dining establishments.
Larson’s go-to restaurant is Peppercorn’s Grill in downtown Hartford that New Britain native Dino Cialfi opened in 1989 after returning from Rome, where he ran a restaurant. The Hartford Courant reported this week that Larson’s campaign reported spending more than $13,000 there over the last three months.
The Courant’s campaign spending tidbit sounded eerily familiar — as it happens the Connecticut Post reported a similar story back in 2003. Larson’s campaign finance reports for the 2002 election included $16,705 spent on meals at restaurants and hotels in Connecticut and the nation’s capital including $4,869 at Peppercorn’s.
Larson’s affinity for fine dining hasn’t changed much since the 2002 campaign. During the first quarter of 2003, the campaign expensed “political meals” at Hartford-area restaurants Peppercorn’s, Cavey’s, Carbone’s, and Parma — and the meals add up.
His campaign filings from January 2003 through September 2018 include 1,849 separate “political meal” and “food and beverages” expenses that total more than $182,000. Catering expenses account for another $603,853.
Peppercorn’s is listed 281 times for “political meals” with the expenses totaling $32,290. Another $31,637 was spent there for catering. Cavey’s Restaurant in Manchester — where owner Steve Cavagnaro offers both northern Italian and French cuisine — has also been a favorite particularly for catering. Larson’s campaign has spent $61,251 on catering there as well as 51 separate expenses for “political meals” totaling $8,324.
Larson has spent more than $93,700 on meals, food and beverages in Connecticut — mostly in the Hartford area. He’s spent another $83,000 in Washington — mostly at Capitol Hill establishments including the member’s dining room in the U.S. Capitol, the restaurant at the Democratic National Committee, and a food court in the Library of Congress. Catering expenses include $413,000 in Connecticut and $158,000 in Washington.
While his allegiance to Peppercorn’s has endured, Larson hasn’t been as loyal to every restaurant. The campaign reported “food and beverage” expenses 73 times in 2010 for Mickey’s Oceanic Grill on Pitkin Street in East Hartford totaling $1,423 — but none since. Similarly, he expensed 57 meals at Hook & Ladder Restaurant on Main Street in Hartford between 2008 and 2011 totaling $3,076. The restaurant has since closed.
Larson’s campaign also rang up $2,274 at Parma Restaurant between 2003 and 2009, the Glastonbury Italian restaurant however closed in 2010 after 35 years in business.
Full disclosure, I wrote the 2003 Post article that looked at the spending habits of Congressional campaigns. That year, the Federal Election Commission reports were first available in digitized forms to include both income and expenses. Using campaign funds to pay for “political meals” — as these were reported — is within bounds, according to the Federal Election Commission. Campaigns often include charges for meals, food and beverages and catering in their campaign finance expense reports that are available to the public at FEC.gov.
Back in 2003, Larson’s campaign treasurer Barry Feldman (who remains his campaign treasurer) said many of the meals involved soliciting contributions, which Larson prefers to do in person rather than by telephone.
“When you are asking someone to make a $1,000 contribution you don’t go to the pizza parlor,” Feldman said at that time.
Larson’s campaign has actually spent some money on pizza. In 2017, three trips to “We, The Pizza” totaled $158. The pizza place owned by celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn is on Pennsylvania Avenue, a few blocks from Larson’s Capitol office.
Larson said one of the reasons he decides to pick up the tab is to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
“Campaign and finance rules and regulations are extremely complex and ever-changing. One way I have chosen to avoid violating those rules and ethics rules, is to be the person at political meetings and political events that picks up the check,” Larson said. “I do this to avoid any appearance of impropriety and so that I’m not beholden to anyone.”
He also acknowledged his dining choices are often close to his offices.
“I obviously have geographic slants to places I visit that are closer to the office, closer to the Campaign Headquarters, and throughout the First District,” he added. “However, I’m proud to support these local, successful businesses. I will continue this practice as long as I’m advised to by campaign experts and lawyers.”
Since his first election campaign in 1998, Larson has been elected by comfortable margins, and is now seeking an 11th term representing Connecticut’s 1st District. His campaigns have raised around $14 million and spent most of it. The campaign closed September with $510,210 cash on hand.
Larson Campaign’s Top Seven Spots in Connecticut *
• Peppercorn’s Grill, 357 Main St., Hartford – $32,290.
• Cavey’s Restaurant, 43 E. Center St., Manchester – $8,324
• Max Fish, 140 Glastonbury Blvd., Glastonbury, $6,963
• Hartford Marriott Downtown, 200 Columbus Blvd, $6,008
• Starbucks, 185 Spencer St., Manchester $4,307
• Hook & Ladder Restaurant, 251 Main St, Hartford $3,076
• Max Downtown, 185 Asylum St, Hartford $3,067
* Based on campaign finance filings at FEC, totals for “political meals” and “food and beverage” expenses.