February 19, 2014

STRANGER: Matt Abbruzzese
LOCATION: Fainting Goat, 1330 U Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: Dining with a DC ANC candidate

I don’t know if Matt Abbruzzese ever stops campaigning.

The energetic 26-year-old is running later this year for a slot on an Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) in Washington, DC. It’s a policy wonk’s dream job, handling all manner of municipal minutiae such as zoning and traffic collection. But the panels have real might, notably over liquor licenses where an ANC chairman’s rejection can doom an application.

Matt wants to be one of those commissioners.

“I have so much respect for the District of Columbia. I’ve sacrificed hours and hours working for the city for free,” he said over dinner at the Fainting Goat in the vibrant U Street neighborhood. “My life is dedicated to community service,” he added, reeling off work such as helping try to get a funk music festival on U Street or hosting a fundraiser for the District’s firefighters.

“Being an ANC commissioner is about doing what’s right and getting work done and people knowing they have a community leader,” he said, arguing he’s the best candidate.

But Matt wasn’t telling only me his campaign pitch. A couple sitting at the next table peeked over as I awkwardly took photos during our meal, which prompted Matt to engage them.

After a microsecond of small talk, he smoothly moved the topic on to local politics and happily engaged them with his defense of DC Ward 1 Council member Jim Graham (one of his mentors) and Mayor Vincent Gray, who’ve both battled scandals recently.

Matt noted that a federal district court earlier this month dismissed a lawsuit in which Graham was named as one of the defendants for allegedly interfering in a property development, which he said exonerated Graham.

And while federal investigators are still investigating alleged campaign finance improprieties from Gray’s first run for mayor in 2010, Matt’s backing the embattled incumbent in his 2014 reelection bid. Why? First, he said Gray’s learned his lesson. Second, he has also been a staunch supporter of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, an important issue for Matt, who is gay.

When the couple left the restaurant it wasn’t clear whether Matt had won their endorsement. Though they promised to check out his website Matt For DC and frequently updated Twitter account. At the very least he guaranteed at least two more people talking about Matt for ANC 1B12. The “1” refers to the council ward in which the commission is located, the “B” to a specific beat within the Ward 1 commission, and the “12” to a single seat on the ANC 1B commission.

Matt’s ANC is in a prime area for the ongoing debate over gentrification of historically black neighborhoods, a controversial issue in the nation’s capital. ANC 1B12 is a specific seat on the commission, currently held by first-termer Zahra Jilani.

The commission for which Matt is running is “the most powerful” in the District, he said, as it represents a major chunk of the U Street neighborhood. The area is home to a seemingly never-ending roster of new bars, restaurants and other venues, leading to the inevitable push-back from some residents about adding yet another liquor license to the already long list of drinking establishments.

Matt plans to use his position on the ANC in part to help promote small and big business alike. “I’m pro-business,” he said, touting the Fainting Goat as a welcome addition to the neighborhood among the other bars, shops and restaurants.

It was my first visit to the place. The décor doesn’t really distinguish the restaurant, with plenty of hardwood and random wall fixtures making it look like several other eateries. But it’s new, and everything looks neatly sanded and polished. Based off the numbers of people there the night we had dinner, it’s so far popular with DC’s thirtysomething crowd.

The front dining room also has awkwardly high tables and chairs, which didn’t make for the most comfortable eating experience, or the cleanest (more on that later).

I’d arrived a few minutes early, and noticed Matt the minute he walked in. It’s hard not to. He’s on the shorter side at 5 feet 3 inches, but carries himself with confidence, enhanced by an often-present smile and wide-open eyes. That’s not by accident.

“I’m a small person literally, but figuratively I’ve got a Napoleon complex to say the least,” he said with a chuckle as we scanned the restaurant’s one-page menu.

The alleged complex leads to shorter people having overly aggressive personalities to compensate for their height, but Matt’s quip instead described what he sees as a lifelong need to prove himself. “I think I’m underestimated a lot. I have a baby face and I look like I’m 17,” he said. “But I’m a serious person. I always feel like I’m having to prove something. Leaders have to prove their credibility and their strength. I’ve always been a leader.”

Matt said he has been a leader from a young age. Even back when he was a child growing up in Merrick, New York, he led his school’s diving team and was president of his student council. “I’m not a power-monger. I just know I can lead,” he said.

It’s that belief that underscores his pitch for the ANC position: he thinks he can do the best job among the field of potential candidates. He wants to promote business in the area, saying it’s in its third revival — and this time won’t crash like the past two times. He’s also understandably solidly behind the LGBT community. And he’s big on “transparency,” getting the community more involved in the ANC’s business and improving its work on every area from liquor licenses to traffic.

Touting the need for a solid retail sector, Matt told our waitress of his praise for Fainting Goat when she brought over our starters.

Matt decided to be adventurous with the first course, opting for the goat tartare, served with radish slices, salsa verde, mustard and crème fraîche. Raw goat is a little bit beyond my typical boundary of culinary excitement, so I was curious how the dish went down with him.

A picture tells a thousand works, and his face was certainly a picture.

“You look like you’re going to cry!” I joked.

After a pause and a swig of water, Matt said, “Thank God for radishes. I wasn’t thinking. I like to be adventurous, but now I don’t want to look at it.”

I guess it wasn’t a hit. “But yours isn’t much better! Fried pork?!” he rebutted.

True. I think I managed to pick the safest possible option from the starters, pork “fries” which are listed somewhat preciously under the “Nibble” section of the menu. Larger appetizers qualify as “Graze,” sandwiches are “Chomp” and entrees are “Feed.”

The fries are just sticks of breadcrumb-coated shredded pork. Despite their relative blandness compared to goat tartare, were outstanding. Finished with black garlic and chopped onion, they’re irresistible. Top quality pork and a satisfying crunch on the breadcrumb crust, this is a starter I’d be happy to never stop eating.

While I pulverized the fries, Matt elaborated on the early steps of his leadership ambitions, including his lifelong love of diving. Merrick — also the hometown of a curious mix of famous names including Debbie Gibson, Lindsay Lohan and Michael Kors — is on the water in Long Island, so Matt was swimming and diving from an early age.

Around the age of 7 or 8 he decided that he found swimming boring, even though he was good at it. Sure, he could power along in the water. But someone taller could beat him in a race even if they were a worse swimmer, solely because of their longer limbs. That frustrated Matt, who thought he was a better swimmer yet still beaten just because someone was taller. “There’s that Napoleon complex again,” he chuckled.

So he focused on diving. It stuck, and with training he developed his diving skills to the point where he ultimately ended up as  team captain for the University of Delaware’s swimming and diving team. On a partial scholarship at university he pursued bachelor degrees in mass communication and Italian studies.

After graduating he had a chance opportunity for an internship at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which brought him to Washington in June 2009. That turned into a full-time post. He’s still at Treasury to this day, and says he’s settled in the city for the long run.

He quickly fell in love with the District, including its booming economy — for which he gives much credit to former Mayor Anthony Williams. He also praises its various communities, particularly in his ANC. They range from the elderly long-term U Street residents to the recent influx of younger people (the same crowd that Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy thinks is full of “myopic little twits”).

Matt’s adoration for the city led him to volunteer with various municipal and neighborhood organizations. It was at a meeting of the Meridian Hill Neighborhood Association where he first met Graham, and the two hit it off. Now Matt can often be spotted alongside Graham at various public events, and was the chairman of the council member’s 2014 reelection bid exploratory committee.

“I’ve always been interested in local politics,” Matt said, describing it in ideal terms as a career for selfless people who want to improve their communities. That stems from his mother. She gave up a lucrative job that could have led to early retirement, instead taking a different job so she could have more time to be a better parent to the Abbruzzese clan. “My parents are selfless, mom could have retired years ago with the other job, but she wanted to be a good mom.”

Translating that to the District and the campaign for ANC 1B12, Matt says that he’s willing to take on the unpaid commissioner role because he wants to work for the city. “This is unpaid work, but I am that dedicated to the city, so you’re getting the best bang for your buck.”

His friendly, outgoing nature and self-confidence should serve him admirably when he officially launches his campaign in July. That’s when he’ll submit his petition of candidacy, which requires 25 signatures. Matt’s planning on more than 100 names endorsing his submission, and will use his aforementioned site and Twitter feed to get the message out. But he’s also planning an old-school campaign, and will knock on every door in his ANC area at least twice.

Hopefully one door he can knock on will be the Fainting Goat, and he can pass on my suggestion that they start using tablecloths for the awkwardly high tables.

I say that, because when my entree of medium rare beef came out, blood from the meat was running down the side of the wooden board it was served on. That wouldn’t normally be a problem in a place that uses tablecloths. But unbeknownst to me, the blood seeped through a minute gap in the wooden table and deposited a hefty stain on my right trouser leg. Despite the waitresses’ best efforts at a quick recovery, offering me all manner of suggestions for drying the blood out, the mark is still evident. Time to visit the dry cleaner.

Regardless of the bloody mess, I was in favor of the meal. The cuts of beef were several and substantial, and I liked the smoked butter it came with.

Matt played it safer for his entree, sticking to the burger with traditional garnish of lettuce, tomatoes and the like, served on a brioche bun. He spoke favorably of his second course. But it was too large to finish in one sitting, ending up taking the remainders home with him.

He lives just around the corner from the Fainting Goat, squarely in the center of the ANC district that he hopes to represent. “I’m so dedicated to 1B12,” he said.

“It’s not about living for the applause and having people know me,” Matt said. “It’s about bringing this community together. I absolutely know I can do that,” he added, reeling off his experiences working as a volunteer for various city boards, organizations and events.

For example, he worked with Graham on pushing the city’s police department to allow an upcoming funk music festival to take place on U Street. Holding it on the street has symbolic importance given that the area was once known as “Black Broadway,” having had the country’s largest urban African-American population and once being home to Duke Ellington and other musicians.

Apparently the police would prefer the festival to take place one block up on V Street, likely avoiding traffic snafus and other headaches that come with shutting off heavily traveled U Street. “But it has to be on U Street, otherwise you’re killing the whole spirit of the event,” Matt said. “Black Broadway needs to be revived for a day” so that the many ethnically and racially diverse business owners and residents that now make up the U Street corridor can be part of it, he added.

Separately, late last year he organized a winter fundraiser at restaurant Diego just off U Street. The funds went to the city firefighters’ campaign to give warm coats to children.

Although he’s already involved in the community, Matt said an ANC role would give him many more opportunities to try and help residents and businesses in the area.

Looking ahead to the ANC election later this year, he expressed an optimism that he’ll win, and win handsomely. And then he can set about doing the wonky work he aspires to do.

“It’s gratifying to solve peoples’ problems,” he said. “I will run on a campaign that I can lead and represent the community and manage the ANC better.”

Saying the commission could be more productive, he concluded: “Let’s get something done, rather than doing nothing. It might not work all the time, but at least I’ll try.”

And with that, dinner was over — and my ears were grateful for the respite from Fainting Goat’s music system, which plays its tunes a few notches too high for comfort.

We walked to the nearest bus stop, where I was to wait for my ride to Columbia Heights, up the hill and out of the scope of ANC 1B12.

Matt waved goodbye, then made the half-block walk to his place, in an apartment building overlooking the area he wants to represent.

That is, I assume he just went home. Unless he ran into another resident during the short walk, because it’s highly likely he’d have stopped to try and win them over. He said he was born to run, and that’s what he’s doing.

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