Friday, April 13, 2007

Ben Downing's First 100 Days

Ben Downing's a pretty busy guy these days.

Ignoring the turkey sandwich next to him, he pulls out his Blackberry and goes over the schedule for Thursday, his 100th day as a Senator in General Court.

"Let's see. I'll be driving in that morning. I have a 9am meeting with the Newgrange Group, folks I've hired to help out with campaign stuff. We have an informal session on Thursday, which means probably nothing going on other than legislation that passed last year that they're trying to get back into the hopper...late files, bills that were filed after the filing deadline that need the approval of rules and such. I have a staff meeting that I have every day I'm down there at 11:45 until 12:45. I have a meeting, with Representative Guyer, at the Attorney General's office in the Consumer Division to talk about some issues we have over in Hancock, with Verizon not investing in their infrastructure. They have old coaxial cables wrapped in paper, so when it rains they lose service over there. I'm meeting with the folks from Comcast to talk telecom issues; I'm sure they'll talk about the telecom tax. We'll probably also talk about broadband out here. And talk about funny things that come up: Cal Ripken, Jr is coming to the State Senate."

I kind of laugh. That is pretty random.

"Yeah, who would've guessed? He'll talk about the Cal Ripken Sr foundation, and promote Badges for Baseball and Healthy Choices, Healthy Children, with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Massachusetts. And then since it's a Thursday, I've got class."

On top of the Pittsfield-Boston roundtrips, keeping in touch with the 48 cities and towns in his district, and the day-to-day business of legislating, Ben's also the cool kid in his public policy Master's classes at Tufts. "I bet you field just as many questions as the professors," I remarked.

His turn to laugh. "Just about. I really do."

I met with the Senator at the Cup and Saucer in North Adams, where he had just come from what must have been a rousing meeting of the local legislative delegation with representatives from the paper manufacturing industry and State Secretary-designate of Labor and Workforce Development Suzanne Bump. It's that kind of stuff that gets him going.

In the last few weeks, Ben's been involved with issues from all over the public policy map: early-stage funding for local biomass/biodiesel production. Commissioning a study of the recruitment and retention of college graduates within the state. Expanding designation rules at the DHCD to help cities and towns keep tabs on absentee landlords. Stamping out paper-wrapped coaxial cables. Posing for pictures with Hall of Fame shortstops.

All this, plus the always nutcracking annual budget process, and a leadership turnover, in the first three months or so of a setting up the first Democratic administration in 12 years. It really fills up his dance card.

But he lights up when he talks about it. It's obvious you're looking at a guy who digs his job.

Ben is, at 25, the youngest member not only of the Senate, but of the entire state legislature. And he knows his election in 2006 wasn't easy. He's got something to prove. "I go into the building with people saying, all right, the kid's got to be able to campaign, at least, but does he know policy? And how hard is he going to work? And that's one thing that I know I have to prove, and I've been out there trying to prove the whole time."

He still catches up on the blogs, though. Enough to zing me about the lack of content for three weeks after the 500-word real life poop joke I posted in March. I reminded him of the blog he sported for a while during the primary, and asked him what happened to it. "Sheer campaign tactics," he joked. "We decided that Marge was the 'blogging candidate' and that she had cornered that market." Sounds like it might be a while before we see a blog--or MySpace page--from him soon.

It's probably easier to just sit where you are and he'll come to you eventually. "The immediate outreach work that we've done has been community forums and community events throughout the district. We did one in Southern Berkshire with Representative Pignatelli. We did one in the hill towns with Representative Kulik in Williamsburg. We've got another one scheduled this coming Sunday in Representative Guyer's hill towns in Windsor to address issues, and we've got one scheduled April 20th with Representative Bosley at MCLA. So there's been outreach. I know I haven't utilized my web site enough yet; we're just trying to figure out the best way to do it."

He's putting a lot of miles on his car, trying to remember a whole bunch of names, and ignoring a lot of turkey sandwiches. But it doesn't sound like he'd have it any other way.

"I absolutely love what I do, every day," he says. "And I mean that in the fullest sense of it. I love the phone calls about Social Security, and I love trying to find a way to address broadband. The full gamut of it interests me. And at this point, I feel blessed to even be able to say that. What does the future hold? I don't know. Maybe you should stay tuned and see if you'll read about it on my blog."

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Wherein My Wife Goads Me Into Posting Again

There is much quality blogsmanship up here in the Northern Berkshires. At least a dozen regular bloggers, a rabidly opinionated readership, the attention of the local legislative delegation. Not a bad deal. We're certainly beating the blogging snot out of whatever's going on down in Pittsfield.

Take a good look at the blogrolls and Technorati listings and you'll see that a scary majority of the Berkshire blogs come from right here in the mighty Hoosic River valley. Our cousins from the banks of the assumedly less mighty Housatonic seem somewhat less willing to commit their thoughts to digital posterity. I wonder what forces are at work there. Has to be a logical explanation.

The mighty Hoosic serves as the introduction to the topic covered by the rest of this post. Our river has its origin in Cheshire Lake, the shores of which comprise the commercial epicenter of the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts. For a few months earlier this year, this town of around 3,400 had a grand total of zero operating restaurants. This changed earlier this year when a new place quietly opened up on Route 8 where Bea's Daily Buzz used to be, and now as of last Sunday, Cheshire's restaurant population has doubled.

The Bass Water Grill has hung out an "Open" sign in the premises formerly occupied by the Lakeside Restaurant, right there on the side of the lake. Run by Ed Bassi, owner of Steeples Restaurant at the North Adams Holiday Inn, the place features a full liquor license and bar, banquet and function facilities, and a newly renovated interior. Having seen that "Open" sign, me, Tara, her little sister (anybody catch the feature in the Advocate about those two a couple issues ago?), and Tara's folks decided to swing on in and give the place a try on its first Saturday night.

Bar area seems pleasant. Only one TV, which is the perfect amount of TVs for a restaurant bar to have. Pleasantly surprised to see our friend Tim, formerly of EGL, practicing mixology and reserving judgment on my penchant for ordering from the less macho side of the drink menu. Dining room seats about 100; has little LCD TVs in the booths along the walls. Not my favorite development in restaurant ambiance, but I suppose you can always turn the things off. On the other hand, the lack of annoying faux antiques on the walls, the non-presence of any background music, and the cool old confessional booth they use to store the ice machine are noticeable nice touches.

The menu is straight-up, no-gimmicks American comparable to, say, Patrick's Pub in Pittsfield. You got about a half-dozen or so selections in the apps, salads, sandwiches, pasta, chicken, steak, or seafood sections. Sandwiches, apps, and salads are in the $6-9 range; entrees go up to around $16 for the sirloin steak. There are probably desserts, but we never got to them. Turns out we overordered apps and most of us petered out during entrees. Not that bad a strategy, as it was worth trying them out: the wings were very impressive, and there was much praise for the pan-fried dumplings. The entrees passed muster as well, although with less universal acclaim.

Waitstaff was very attentive and helpful. We're a strange bunch in restaurants and tend to ask a lot of questions and go off-menu when ordering, and even though this was everybody's first week on the job, our service was top-notch.

If Ed's taking suggestions, I've got some:

  • Open for a regular Sunday brunch.

  • Bring in live music when your function room isn't booked on a Friday/Saturday night. It's a good location, the room is a good size, and you're clear of residential neighborhood whingers.

  • Get rid of the "charging for refills" policy on soda and coffee.

  • More cheese on the nachos.

  • Expand the lakeside windows. That view is key, especially facing west towards the lake and the hills. Expensive, perhaps, but makes a huge difference in the dining experience.

    Still, the consensus was largely positive, and it's always great to have another option north of Pittsfield. Give them a try, and let the rest of us know what your experience was like.