By Betsy Rothstein - 04/21/08 05:41 PM EDT
AKRON, Ohio — Sitting in a diner in downtown Akron is not glamorous.
With a stark industrial feel, the city is not much to see amidst the steady drizzle on this gray Sunday morning. But there is something quaint and unpretentious about the scene inside the diner, and the same can be said about the congresswoman who represents it.
The Akron Family Restaurant is nothing fancy, but it is the picture of Norman Rockwell’s America, with families eating toast and pancakes; women dressed in church clothes and hats; and a father pacing with a sleeping newborn to keep things calm.
In walks Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) and she, too, is calm.
Dressed in a heather gray skirt suit and light blue blouse, she bears the natural beauty of a Dove soap commercial with subtle, minimal makeup — light eye shadow to highlight bright blue eyes and a simple lip gloss. Straight blond hair skims her neckline and falls in stylish, imprecise layers. Her nails are manicured, but unpolished.
The 44-year-old congresswoman who represents Akron is likewise not polished, at least not in the way politicians sometimes are. She served in the state legislature for eight years, but miraculously, she does not speak in sound bites.
But she does avoid answering a hot topic. During this interview on April 13, Sutton declared she was not endorsing anyone for president. “I am an uncommitted superdelegate, [but] I may become a committed superdelegate,” she warned, commenting extensively on recent visits with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Clinton, she says, has more aggressively sought her vote, though she has spoken with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) by telephone. This past Friday Sutton came out for Clinton.
“Trade isn’t what is costing American jobs,” she says, explaining that Clinton joined her at a trade working group in Washington the week before. “Bad trade policies are what’s costing American jobs. Knowing a candidate has a comprehensive understanding of these issues is what’s important to me. This isn’t some one-size solution.
“It’s clear in my mind that both candidates are superior to [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.], who says he’s a free trader,” says Sutton, who for the only time in the interview grows angry. “Well, what does that mean?”
Service is swift. Food seems an afterthought to Sutton, something to accompany her coffee.
“I’ll have some oatmeal with raisins,” she politely tells the waitress. “Coffee would be fabulous.”
During her wrenching campaign for Congress — she had eight primary opponents, one of whom was Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (D-Ohio) brother and another was former Rep. Tom Sawyer (D-Ohio) — Sutton acquired a strange ritual. Each day at 2 p.m. she would eat a piece of chocolate cake. She wasn’t picky, and likes anything from Quiznos’s individual cakes to those from a bakery near her campaign headquarters called Market St. Café.
It wasn’t a scene from “The Devil Wears Prada” where aides had cake waiting on her desk at exactly 2 p.m. — or else. It was a ritual that developed, she says, to center herself amid a stressful, competitive race. “It seemed that chocolate cake put everything back in order,” she says.
Perhaps, for Sutton, the cake and its icing served as a sweet foreshadowing. She beat out the eight primary rivals and went on to clobber her GOP opponent by winning 61 percent of the vote.
The waitress, dressed in an old-school skirt uniform with an apron and her hair pulled back, arrives. Though the diner’s general manager knew Sutton by name — she’s a regular here — and switched our table, offering us the “quiet, larger” table in the corner, it does not appear we’re getting special treatment.
The diner is a throwback to the 1950s, with plastic tablecloths, blue-green carpeting and orange sherbet-colored walls. The menu is fantastic, with “Akron’s Famous” this or that. There’s “Akron’s French Dip Platter,” and the reminder, “Be sure to ask your server about Akron’s pie selection.”
Let it be known, Akron is not known for its French Dip or pie.
It’s more about rubber. The city even bears the nickname “The Rubber Capital of the World” since it is home to the Fortune 500 company Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. The history of Akron and rubber is significant: In 1859, B.F. Goodrich started the first rubber company in Akron; in 1892 Firestone Tire and Rubber Plant arrived and, in 1915, General Tire came to Akron by way of the O’Neils, whose department store became a city landmark.
Aside from rubber, there are traditions here. Each summer Akron hosts the Soap Box Derby. It’s also famous for Goodyear blimps.
Sutton’s oatmeal arrives and becomes one of those meals, like a heaping plate of spaghetti and meatballs, that appears to magnify the more you eat it.
A tortoise comes to mind as she moves the grains around with a spoon for a long while, making no grand gestures as she stirs and stirs (and stirs and stirs) and shakes raisins and brown sugar into the bowl.
Once in a while she eats a spoonful. The oatmeal grows. She stirs some more.
Meanwhile, she holds her mug of coffee in both her hands in front of her heart.
Sutton is not a manic coffee drinker. She drinks slowly and only allows one refill over an hour and a half. Before breakfast, her aide, Michael Dalton, who has joined us, warns me that Sutton is not typically a breakfast eater — apart from coffee — and is a vegetarian. “I think she runs on coffee,” he says. “She goes and goes and goes. She’s pretty impressive.”
When she speaks of the troubled economy, Sutton grows fierce, talking about the jobs she wants in the community. At her first C-SPAN interview in Washington after the State of the Union, she remarked, “Jobs, jobs, jobs” — words colleagues still tease her about in the hallways.
“They just want some government opportunity and a government that works with them and not against them,” she says of constituents, to whom she refers as the “salt of the earth.”
Sutton became a vegetarian about 10 years ago. She doesn’t recall a deciding moment, but a gradual realization that she wasn’t enjoying eating meat. “I like cheese a lot,” she says. “You put cheese on something and it can cure almost any flaw.”
Being vegetarian in Washington can pose a problem. “Sometimes it’s pizza for lunch and pizza for dinner,” she says.
When she first arrived to Congress, friends left her a six-pack of Diet Pepsi (a Sutton staple) and chocolate cake. “I think that speaks for itself,” she says, smiling.
Growing up in Barberton was a scene of meat and potatoes. With her mother out of the house working, her older sister cooked for her and her five siblings, four of whom were boys. Meals consisted of sloppy joes, meatloaf, vegetables and potatoes. “What you might expect to find on the table of a Midwesterner,” she says.
Sutton admits she’d often have to be pushed to eat breakfast because she preferred sleeping an extra five minutes to eating.
She’s a regular at the diner and ate here just yesterday with her husband, joking that she was glad to finally see him. With a rigorous schedule, she admits, there are time constraints. During her weekend visit she attended a black-tie event for firefighters in Lorain. As a former labor lawyer who had them for clients, “they were some of my first supporters. They have a special place in my heart.”
Sutton makes valiant efforts with her oatmeal, which appears as heaping as it did upon its arrival. She adds the remaining raisins and sprinkles in more brown sugar. After one, maybe two final spoonfuls, the waitress comes and asks if she’s done.
Sutton looks relieved. Yes, she says, she is.
Cake may come later in the day. “I don’t have to ability to always secure the chocolate cake,” she says. “I fit it in where I can.”