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Frugal Matheson walks to own beat

He links independent streak to his father, the late governor

Published: Sunday, Oct. 29 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

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.

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