Doris Matsui front-runner to succeed her husband

As mourners gather in the Capitol today to remember Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.), momentum continues to build for his widow, Doris Matsui, to fill his Sacramento-area seat.

Rep. Matsui, who served in the House for 26 years, died Saturday at the age of 63 from pneumonia brought on by a rare form of bone-marrow disease.

“The financial backers of Democratic politics in Northern California are all ready to line up behind Doris,” a source close to the Matsui family said. “The entire California [congressional] delegation is going to be pressing for her to run and succeed Bob.”

The source continued: “The sense, as I make phone calls on the family’s behalf, is in Sacramento there are two reactions: The first is just shock and sadness about Bob.
The second is that Doris must run. Everybody is just looking for a signal as to when the appropriate time is to talk to her about it. Everybody respected Bob so much that nobody wants to do anything disrespectful.”

A Democratic aide on Capitol Hill added that Doris Matsui is the most viable candidate for the job. “She’s connected in Washington,” the aide said. “She’s qualified to be in Congress by anyone’s reckoning.”

Doris Matsui works at the Washington law firm and lobbying shop Collier Shannon Scott, where she has represented medical-technology manufacturers, telecommunications companies and financial institutions before Congress and federal agencies, according to the firm’s website. She is not an attorney.

She also served in the Clinton White House, where, the website states, she helped cobble together support for the North American Free Trade Agreement and worked on other administration initiatives dealing with health, education and the environment.

Democratic aides said that earlier in the week, as members returned to Washington for the 109th Congress, Doris Matsui’s name was repeatedly bandied about as a possible congressional contender.

Those Democrats said that this week the focus is remembering Rep. Matsui, including a service today in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall and a memorial tomorrow at the California Capitol Rotunda, where the former congressman and city councilman will lie in state for 24 hours.

“Mrs. Matsui and the Matsui family right now are obviously taking measure of their lives and the gravity of Bob’s passing, and they are entirely focused on the arrangements this week and reflecting upon Bob’s life and their lives, and that’s all they’re going to be focused on this week,” Jim Bonham, a spokesman for the congressman’s family who formerly worked with Rep. Matsui when he chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said yesterday.

Next week, Democrats promised, the politics would heat up.

Republicans in California also said they expected Doris Matsui to run for the seat.

“That’s the tradition out here in California,” GOP consultant Grant Gillham said, alluding to Reps. Mary Bono (R) and Lois Capps (D), both of whom won their late husbands’ seats.

“Some of the Democrat consultants and certainly all of the Matsui people are going to advocate for her to run,” Gillham said. He added that the Matsui name remains a potent force in the state capital. “Matsui was beloved here by the Democratic establishment.”

For now, the race to replace Matsui is a largely Democratic affair. Like all of California’s 53 congressional districts, the 5th was designed to protect the incumbent party. Democrats in the district outnumber Republicans 2-to-1. Joe Shumate, a Republican consultant, said it would be “very, very tough” for the GOP to capture the Matsui seat.

Matsui, who was elected in November to a 14th term, regularly won 70 percent or more of the vote.

A handful of California legislators — most notably state Sen. Deborah Ortiz and former Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, both Democrats — have been mentioned as possible candidates. But, as one Democratic source put it, “They’re all waiting for Doris.”

Yesterday, Republican Alex St. James, chairman of the African-American Republican Leadership Council, said he would run for Matsui’s seat. St. James added that he would welcome a race against Doris Matsui — a race that Democrats laughed off as “political suicide” for St. James or any other Matsui foe.

“I wish she would run because it would be good for us because then we could bring up the issues,” said St. James, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in the 2003 recall election and helped run Herman Cain’s failed Senate bid in Georgia last year.

“Finally, the folks can see [Matsui’s record]. I don’t want to speak ill of the man. But there were a lot of areas where he was MIA.” St. James, who came to the United States from Liberia, added: “Immigration, he was really bad. Just open the gates.”