Jim Matheson likes to tell you he's an independent guy.

As Utah's only Democrat in Congress, Matheson says he votes on issues based on what's best for his constituents in the sprawling 2nd Congressional District, not necessarily as U.S. House Democratic bosses wish he'd vote.

His bull-headed independence is a Matheson family trait, he says — noting that his father, the late Gov. Scott M. Matheson — showed it during eight years in office.

"I was taught in my dad's politics as I was growing up — be the independent voice. Don't be a rubber stamp for any party.

"That was the way he conducted himself. I told people that that was the way I'd be when I first got in this job."

A national journal that ranks all congressmen says that Matheson votes with national Democrats just over 50 percent of the time, while he votes with Republicans just under half the time.

Matheson, the third of four children, was at Harvard University during part of his father's time in office. And most political observers believed that it would be eldest son, Scott Matheson Jr., who would carry the family's political banner into a new generation.

But Jim Matheson is a planner — some may even say a schemer. And while Scott Jr. was coaxed to run for the U.S. Senate or governor — but hesitated — Jim looked at the 2nd Congressional District and then-incumbent Republican Merrill Cook.

He would have gone after Cook — and sought the Democratic Party nomination — in 1998, as he was tired of his energy consulting firm and was looking for new challenges. But former Utah Education Association president Lily Eskelsen got in the race early, had financial and political backing, and Jim Matheson backed away.

Good timing.

Cook crushed Eskelsen, helped on by some poorly written attack ads against him funded by out-of-state special interests.

When 2000 came along, Cook was self-destructing, challenged by two Republican newcomer millionaires. Jim Matheson stepped in, and the Democrats rallied around him. He raised some cash and took out eventual Republican candidate Derek Smith, who had defeated a crippled Cook in the primary.

Matheson, with his good family name, bucked the Utah GOP trend, even as President Bush won big here in 2000, taking the 2nd District office.

Personal issue

Now, six years later, Matheson is far ahead in the polls. Top Utah Republicans are quietly hoping he'll stay "independent" and help them with some of their issues in what appears may be a new Democratic House majority; and until they get another shot at redrawing his district, GOP leaders appear to accept Matheson as an embarrassing "blue" district in very "red" Utah.

Matheson has grown politically over the past six years — always careful to downplay that he's a Democrat in a very Republican state. His ads don't say that he's a Democrat and don't display the donkey, symbol of the Democratic Party. He usually doesn't have any national Democrats come into Utah during an election year to campaign for him. You won't see Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., making an appearance here.

Tall, like his dad, wearing cowboy boots and carrying an aw-shucks kind of posture, Matheson is a smart cookie who tries not to lord it over those he's talking to.

Raised in a close-knit family, Jim Matheson says his father's death in 1990 from a rare form of cancer changed his life. Scott Sr., wife Norma and baby Scott Jr. were living in southern Utah in the early 1950s when a number of open-air nuclear bomb tests went off in Nevada. The pink radioactive clouds drifted overhead.

And 40 years later, the former governor died of a type of cancer officially recognized as bomb-test-caused.

"Dad was never bitter about what happened to him. He believed in the process of politics. At the end of the day, I got in this business because my family emphasized you have to be involved in public service somehow, and you ought to try to make this world a better place for your children and grandchildren."

Still, one of the first causes newly elected Congressman Matheson took up was radioactive/nuclear storage. Later, he fought against his GOP delegation colleagues, who were siding with President Bush's plans to reconstruct the Nevada Test Site to be ready to test a new generation of smaller, "bunker-busting" nuclear warheads.

"I've gotten funding (for test preparedness and bunker-busting nuclear bombs) stripped from the budget two years in a row," he says. "It is an issue that has been very close to my family but also close to my constituents. And everywhere I go we talk about it."

Blue Dog Democrat

Matheson says that another family trait — and a Scottish trait brought from the old country — is frugality. Or, as some would say of Matheson, he's cheap.

In college he bought a 6-year-old sports car and drove it for another 19 years. "You could see the road through the floor boards. But, hey, it still drove."

He joined a group of fiscally conservative Democrats in the House who call themselves the Blue Dog Coalition. Not greatly loved by the party leadership, the Blue Dogs fight for a balanced budget and fiscal restraint. With the federal government now running record deficits, they haven't been successful. Matheson is now co-chairman of the Blue Dogs.

"There's a story in our family that when my father was less than 10 years old, his father put him on the bus in Salt Lake to send him down to Parowan for the summer to work on one of the family farms, he gave dad a dollar. And when he came back in the fall, he still had that dollar in his pocket.

"I certainly grew up in a household that taught you live within your means. You take a conservative approach to your economic well-being."

Matheson is now the father of two boys, with older son Wil now 7.

Although Wil doesn't get on the Internet alone, Matheson observes that "the average age that a child is exposed to pornography in the Internet is age 11. And as far as age groups, the largest number of people who see pornography on the Internet are children between the age of 12 and 17.

"These numbers are alarming. As a parent I worry."

Next to pornography, Matheson doesn't like youngsters playing violent and sexually explicit video games that are clearly adult in nature but marketed to a younger audience.

Matheson has introduced several bills on the issues.

One would require age-verification to enter X-rated adult Internet sites.

"We can do this. There is even off-the-shelf software to do it now, used for Internet tobacco sales," he said. "You would ask for ID from someone buying an adult video in a brick-and-mortar store. You should do it on the Internet."

His bill would place a 25-percent tax on adult Internet material sales to fund Web site law enforcement. The bill hasn't gone anywhere, with Matheson saying some congressmen don't want to vote for a tax increase on anything, anytime.

His other bill will would require an ID check before you could buy mature and adult video games. He doesn't deal with content of the games. "That is a First Amendment free-speech issue. I just use the current rating system that the industry already uses on all games and says minors can't buy" the violent and sex-oriented games.

Matheson, who held a double-digit lead over Republican state legislator LaVar Christensen in a late-September Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll, says after he believes he's done what he has said he would do.

"After six years I think people know that those are promises I've kept. And I'm pretty proud of that actually."

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com