Political observers are quick to lament the nation’s growing political polarization, in which both major parties seem pulled to their extreme edges and very few wish to compromise with the other side. The trend is reflected in county-by-county election results that make many congressional races highly predictable.
That is reason enough to regret that Utah Rep. Jim Matheson announced this week he would end his career in the House by not seeking re-election in 2014. The quintessential “blue dog” Democrat in Congress — a fiscal conservative capable of reaching across the aisle to get things done — will be missed.
To understand Matheson’s ability to appeal to conservative Utahns, all you need to know is that he won seven terms in the House as a Democrat, despite efforts by the Republican Party to redraw his district to include ever more hard-core conservatives. It happened after the 2000 Census, and again in 2010, and yet he kept winning. In his last race, against Republican Mia Love, he won by a scant 768 votes, but that cannot be fully appreciated without understanding that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried that district by 38 percentage points that same day. Even Romney’s coattails couldn’t push Matheson from office.
That sort of thing cannot be accomplished without the ability to resonate with the desires of Utahns, as well as the demeanor to reflect the state’s respect for a civil tone amid the harsh rhetoric that characterizes modern politics. Utahns appreciate a decent politician who stands up for their needs. Matheson’s success reflected positively on all Utahns. He became a convincing counter to the accusation that state residents mindlessly vote for Republicans regardless of other factors.
Perhaps the most important example of his ability to cross party lines was his role, together with then-Sen. Bob Bennett, a Republican, to pass the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act. The bill managed to solve seemingly intractable differences concerning growth and conservation, two competing interests in a fast-growing state rich in natural treasures. The two politicians spent five years working with all stakeholders in Southern Utah, incorporated their suggestions and ended up with a bill that managed to protect sensitive lands while allowing for robust growth.
Matheson also served as a fiscal conservative who supported a balanced budget amendment and other austerity measures, including one that would end automatic pay raises for members of Congress.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a prominent Republican, issued a statement Tuesday saying, “During my 37 years in the United State Congress, I’d be hard pressed to name someone who I’ve enjoyed serving alongside of more than Jim Matheson.”
That’s high praise from someone in the opposite party. It’s also rare praise in an age when cooperation and compromise are devalued, despite being urgently needed.