Heard on the Hill

Over Ribs, Angus King Fosters Senate Collegiality

Senator talks barbecue and Maine lobster

“For the record, I don’t think this is the rib joint from ‘House of Cards.’”

That’s what Sen. Angus King said between bites of pulled pork and coleslaw inside the recently-renovated Kenny’s BBQ Smokehouse at 732 Maryland Ave. NE.

The barbecue spot is not far from where King resides while working on Capitol Hill. It has supplied the ribs for small bipartisan dinners for senators hosted by King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats.

King said one thing he realized when he joined the Senate in 2013, after having served as a legislative aide to Maine Sen. William D. Hathaway decades before, was that the relationships between senators were not what they used to be.

“I decided to have a one-man campaign to try to do this relationship thing,” King said. “About once every six weeks or so my office will call around and we’ll round up four or five senators, always bipartisan, for ribs, coleslaw and beans at the house.”

“I think we’ve had over 50 senators, and they range from Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer to John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker,” King said.

King recalled Cruz, the Texas Republican often viewed as a conservative firebrand, stepping away from one of the rib dinners so he could place his nightly phone call to daughters Caroline and Catherine.

The routine wasn’t something King had known about Cruz.

King is certainly not alone in recognizing that senators flying back and forth to their home states every weekend has contributed to the erosion of the traditional collegiality of the chamber, but he is also not claiming to have the silver bullet.

“I can’t claim that it’s changing the Senate, but I’ve seen it, I mean, it helps,” King said. “When I need to go talk to Lindsey Graham or John McCain or somebody, there’s a little bit more in the background.”

Kenny’s served the pulled pork and brisket without sauce, ensuring that the conversation with Roll Call for its “At the Table” video series would turn in that direction.

“The sauce is the whole deal,” King said.

“I like the Memphis and Kenny’s mild,” he said of his preferences among the five choices at the table. “I don’t want the sauce to overpower the pork.”

The senator then pivoted from sauces to rubs.

“I do smoke my own ribs up in Maine. And the key to good smoked ribs is the rub. I have a friend who makes a real great rub, so that’s the secret of good ribs,” King said. “I actually once took a barbecue course. A buddy and I went — spent a day learning about how to wrap up a chicken and what kinds of rubs to use on the ribs.”

King’s developed interest in barbecue came somewhat later in life. He said his parents never served ribs when he was growing up.

“At some point in my adult life, I discovered this great American delicacy,” King said.

Talking lobster

While filming inside Kenny’s BBQ meant the interview would surely focus on meat, it would be malpractice not to talk to a Maine senator about Vacationland’s most famous food.

Maine lobstermen have been blessed with an abundant harvest this year, but a recent study by the University of Maine found a decline in the young lobster population in many locations all the way from Cape Cod Bay to New Brunswick in Canada.

“The Gulf of Maine is heating up faster than any body of water on Earth, except the Arctic Ocean,” King said. “We’re excited about the big lobster harvest, but I think everybody has in the back of their mind, that we’re concerned about where it’s going to be 10 years from now, because all we’ve got to do is look to our south.”

King’s advocacy for Maine lobsters has recently had him on a campaign petitioning the Unicode Consortium for the addition of a new standard lobster emoji.

“For some reason, the emojis, they’ve got all kinds of animals. Even crabs. Even crabs. They don’t have a lobster,” King said.

When the senator posted on Instagram that he wrote a letter about adding a lobster emoji, he said “the likes went off the chart. Everybody loved the idea.”

“It’s not like I’m sitting around working on emojis. I don’t want to give that impression,” King said. “But it’s a way of adding some value to an important Maine industry.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.