SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jim Matheson, the state's sole Democratic member of Congress, said Thursday that doing away with political labels is the way to get work done in Washington, D.C.
Matheson is the only Utahn among some 70 other members of Congress who've signed on as "problem solvers" with No Labels, a Washington, D.C. group co-chaired by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. that promotes non-partisanship.
The "problem solvers" unveiled a legislative reform package on Capitol Hill Thursday largely aimed at improving government efficiency, such as a call for bulk purchasing by government agencies.
"The No Labels group is saying, 'Let's get rid of these labels, Democrat, Republican, liberal and conservative. Let's just work to get things done,'" Matheson said, adding he was "proud to stand with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle."
That's the same attitude that has helped keep Matheson in Congress since 2000 despite the GOP's dominance in Utah politics, said Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah political science professor.
Joining with No Labels will help Matheson "reinforce the way he's always positioned himself, you know, that he's independent," Burbank said. "I don't think it's likely to change anybody's perceptions of him."
Huntsman's association with No Labels has been seen as hurting his chances of winning over fellow Republicans should he make another run for the White House in 2016.
He dropped out of the 2012 presidential race following a disappointing third-place showing in New Hampshire after standing out as a moderate candidate with views at odds with conservatives on some issues such as climate change.
In Matheson's case, though, steering away from his party "absolutely" helps him with Utah voters, said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
"It's very consistent with his brand as someone who tries to get things done, regardless of party," Jowers said. Being a part of No Labels "firmly establishes his independent and moderate voice in Utah."
Matheson has distanced himself from the national party and its leaders, even avoiding attending the Democratic National Convention where presidents are nominated.
"The results are pretty clear," Jowers said of Matheson's success defeating Republican challengers, including a well-funded bid by Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, who is already raising money for another go at the seat in 2014.
"Matheson has shown a clear path on how to be a successful Democrat in Utah," Jowers said.
State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said Matheson has earned the respect of party members for wanting to "dump Washington labels" and distance himself from the gridlock in Washington.
"I don't think it hurts our party. I think it helps," Dabakis said of Matheson's participation in No Labels. "It's making that distinction, that Utah Democrats are not part of that dysfunction."
Utah Democrats, Dabakis said, see themselves as moderate. "Of course, I'm a labels guy, the party leader and state senator said. "But there's a big difference between being a Utah Democrat and being part of that cesspool in Washington."
Love's campaign manager, Dave Hansen, said it's not going to be clear to voters in Utah who want solutions to the nation's problems what Matheson's involvement with No Labels will ultimately accomplish.
"It's easy to say, 'Let's use bipartisanship to solve those problems,'" Hansen said, describing Matheson as doing "everything he can to downplay the fact that he's a Democrat."
Love, who had the backing of Republican national party leaders in her close 2012 race against Matheson, would "not necessarily get caught up in movements and things like that" if elected, Hansen said.
"I don't know whether having another organization out there solves problems," Hansen, a former state GOP chairman, said. "The simple fact is you have to get stuff done."
Burbank said there is a risk of being associated with No Labels for Matheson.
"There are a lot of these things that pop up and for a little while will get a little bit of attention, but in the end don't go anywhere," Burbank said. "It really remains to be seen, to people really get behind it."
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