Congressional widows support one another

As Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) begins her transition into Congress after the death in January of her husband, Rep. Robert Matsui (D), she will have a bipartisan support network of three other members.

Reps. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and Mary Bono (R-Calif.) have also replaced their husbands after they died in office and share a delicate bond of mutual understanding about the courage and strength required to run for Congress after a spouse’s death.

“All of us lost a loved one in a dramatic fashion and were plunged immediately into a campaign that in some ways either made us postpone our grieving or allowed us to grieve publicly,” said Emerson, who won Rep. Bill Emerson’s (R) seat after he died in 1996. “Regardless of differences of opinion on issues that we all share a common bond that doesn’t otherwise exist.”

Bono said she called Doris Matsui a few weeks after Robert Matsui’s death.

“We spoke for probably 20 minutes about the interesting and tragic events of life,” said Bono, whose husband, Rep. Sonny Bono (R), died in 1998.

“I know she has been given terrific advice and great support … [but] I think the most help that she is going to need is down the road,” Bono said. “When I look back on my own first few weeks in Congress, it was really such a whirlwind.”

She said that while she would be there for Matsui if needed, the new congresswoman would probably find her own support system within Congress as she begins to feel more comfortable.

“Early on, [California Republican Reps.] David Dreier, Ken Calvert and Jerry Lewis practically lived in my house for the first couple weeks,” Bono said with a smile. “Congress is a close-knit family.”

Matsui was sworn into office March 10, after easily winning a March 8 special election in the Sacramento-based 5th District. Her husband died New Year’s Day.

Capps, a longtime friend of the Matsuis, said that Doris Matsui was welcomed with open arms into the House but that she doesn’t need any special handholding.

Matsui, like the other three women, was elected with her name on the ballot and was suited to serve in Congress, Capps said.

“We each have a unique experience even though we all came as widows,” said Capps, who won her House seat in 1998 after the death of her husband, Rep. Walter Capps (D). “She was elected on her own, and she knew that I was there for her all the way.”

Before her election, Matsui was a Washington lobbyist, and she is a former Clinton White House staffer.

“I think all of us also had in our own right the capabilities of doing this job … that we may not have thought we had,” Emerson said.

Emerson agreed with Bono that some of the biggest challenges for Matsui are ahead, and that it was important for her to take time for herself.

“When you are plunged into a campaign right after your spouse’s death, sometimes you just need some alone time and it’s hard to get that here,” Emerson said.

She added that while the women come from both sides of the aisle, they have found time and common space to speak with one another about their shared experiences.

“Mary and Lois and I, we’ve had discussions sometimes ourselves, and hopefully Doris will want to participate,” Emerson said.
“She’s my friend and my colleague,” Capps said. “We have a richer caucus in general than we did before, but we also have the emptiness of not having Bob Matsui here.”

She added, “That’s the piece that I can relate to because that’s how I feel.”

In total, 46 widows have been either elected or appointed to succeed their husbands, 38 in the House and eight in the Senate, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.