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Matheson carrying his family's banner

When you listen to Rep. Jim Matheson discuss his life in the U.S. House — the long plane rides each week to and from Washington, D.C., the missed moments with his young son, the absent family events — you may wonder why he wants this job.

But for Matheson, 44, the work is not just about the people he meets and, if he can, helps. There is also another motive here: A family flag picked up and carried forward.

Matheson was just 30 when his father, the late Gov. Scott M. Matheson, died in 1990. "It will be 14 years next month," Matheson says immediately upon being asked what it meant to him to lose his father so relatively early.

"I'm glad that I came back here after graduate school" at UCLA, Matheson says, looking back on the loss. "I got three years with him — I got to know him as an adult, a different relationship than being someone's son, he being (my) father."

Losing a father is one thing Matheson and his GOP opponent, John Swallow, share. Swallow's father died when he was only 10.

It's common among politically active families for children of famous politicians to be encouraged to run. Matheson serves with two such examples — Reps. Tom and Mark Udall, D-N.M., and D-Colo., respectively, are the sons of Stewart and Morris Udall, two Arizona brothers who both served in the U.S. House and other top political posts.

But being mentioned as a possible candidate and actually running and winning doesn't happen often. Matheson has done it. And this year his older brother, Scott Matheson Jr., seeks Utah's governorship.

Family, politics

Rep. Matheson has been around politics since his father first ran for office in 1976. Jim Matheson managed the late Wayne Owens' unsuccessful gubernatorial race in 1984. He was going to run for the 2nd District in 1998 but gave way to Democrat Lily Eskelsen. He announced early for the 2000 race and easily won the Democratic nomination.

"I miss him," Matheson says of his father. "He's not there when we all go over to my mom's house for a family gathering."

Living close to family is important to Matheson. In fact, he, wife Amy and 6-year-old son Will moved from their upper Avenues home last year into what he jokingly calls the "Matheson neighborhood," just below Hogle Zoo on the city's east side. His sister lives nearby, as do aunts and uncles. Brother Scott lives down the road in the Harvard-Yale area.

"Three of four children live in the area — and (the families) get together at (mother Norma's house) all the time. It's nice," says Matheson.

He, however, often isn't there. Matheson commutes to Washington, D.C., weekly when Congress is in session, usually flying out of D.C. on a Thursday night or Friday morning, taking the five-hour flight back Sunday night or Monday morning.

Fellow Utah Reps. Chris Cannon and Rob Bishop, both R-Utah, do the same.

The commuting means less time with his family. "I did take Will to kindergarten his first day this fall. He did just fine. Dad struggled a bit with his emotions. Clearly, my life is changing."

Asked what's different in his job from his first term — 2001/2002 — to his second term — 2003/2004 — and Matheson quickly says "the time it takes to travel around in my district."

After the GOP-controlled Legislature's 2001 redistricting, Matheson's 2nd District is "the size of Alabama" — stretching from eastern Salt Lake County east and southward. It now includes northern Utah County, Washington and Iron counties, the rough, rutted dirt roads of San Juan County's Navajo Reservation, the Uinta Basin and the coal fields of Carbon County.

"This has been a more interesting and diverse term," Matheson said of the past two years. Anything and everything that is part of Utah is now part of his district, he said. "I have Indian reservations, national parks," ranching and farming operations, wilderness.

"Intellectually, it's been exciting," he said.

Organized and reserved

In the newly enlarged district, Matheson barely kept Swallow at bay in 2002, winning by less than 1 percentage point. But the 2004 rematch has not proven as close. Matheson has raised more than $1.6 million and led Swallow by more than 30 percentage points in the latest Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll.

That advantage will close by Election Day, both candidates agree. "But I will do better than the last time," Matheson predicts.

Why?

Because, says Matheson, he's worked the new district hard. Over the past two years he's taken more than a dozen trips to Washington County, where Swallow pounded him before. Matheson got just 28 percent of the vote there in 2002.

"I have two new offices" in southern Utah. "I'll meet with anyone."

Matheson's success in the GOP-leaning district is no doubt in part because of his planning.

He's known to be fiscally cheap — before his son was born he drove a 20-year-old car with rusted out floorboards — a cautious man who weighs all his options time and again before making a decision.

He's an observer, too, taking in all around him, looking for an edge.

Take softball, for example.

As a young adult, Matheson started playing on co-ed teams. He was the slow-pitch team leader, taking to the mound himself and analyzing the opposing player's style, strength and weakness.

"Who would bother with that?" said longtime friend and former teammate, Mike Smith. "It was just softball.

"Jim always had a strategy — how I'm going to pitch that guy or woman. He didn't take it too seriously, didn't get upset" if the team lost, said Smith. But he wanted to win.

A product of local public schools, Matheson graduated from East High School and was accepted at Harvard, where he met his future wife, Amy Herbener. She is a pediatrician practicing in Salt Lake.

Peter Martin roomed with Matheson nearly all of their four Harvard years. "The first few weeks at Harvard all the freshmen were showing off — what we did in high school, how much we knew. Jim was reserved. He was the first Westerner I'd met, me being from Boston. He talked slow. He considered his opinions before mouthing off like the rest of us did. I didn't even know his father was the sitting governor of Utah, he didn't mention it for months. That's Jim."

Committed to change

After graduating, Matheson took three years off from school and worked as a lobbyist for the Environmental Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He took a leave from that job to run Owens' failed 1984 governor's race.

While some pushed him to follow his father's and older brother's law degrees, Matheson instead got a master of business administration degree from UCLA.

In 1987 he went to work for a growing firm that would soon collapse — Bonneville Pacific.

"I was a midlevel manager," recalls Matheson, "one of the guys who got a pink slip" when the high-flying energy company went bankrupt in 1991 and criminal charges were filed against its top managers.

But with the experience and contacts made at Bonneville, Matheson went to work for a local energy consulting firm, then started his own consulting firm, showing clients how they could save money on their energy consumption. He shut down his business when he ran for Congress in 1999.

And in so doing, Matheson took up a cause left by his father.

The late Gov. Matheson died of a rare cancer, a type the federal government has officially accepted as caused by radioactive fallout from open air testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s. Scott and Norma Matheson lived in Cedar City during part of that time.

Now Rep. Matheson has introduced a bill that would require congressional approval, among other guarantees, before underground testing can be resumed at the Nevada Test Site.

"My dad died because he was a Downwinder" — people damaged by the nuclear fallout, Matheson said. "And (as governor) he was involved in uncovering that whole phenomena of government, the cover-up. A lot of people may expect someone in that circumstance to be a very bitter person. But I never saw that bitterness in him."

Is Matheson bitter about his father's death?

"Yes, but not just for my dad. This (federal) government should have been better than that," Matheson said. The Mathesons never applied for the $50,000 death benefit available to Downwinders.

"Even though the government let Dad down. He was always committed to the public process — that changes can be made" for the better.

And that, says Matheson, is what he's trying to do in the U.S. House.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com