I talked to Scott Matheson on the phone before I ever met him in person. I was a young night police reporter in 1977 writing a story - I forget on what - that I thought needed a comment from the governor.
I called the executive mansion, a Highway Patrol officer answered, and I left my name and number. I figured an aide would call me back later that night or that I wouldn't get any call back.Within an hour the phone rang, I answered and a voice said, "This is Scott Matheson. Is Bob Bernick Jr. there?"
I was a bit stunned. I asked a couple of questions. He answered them directly. I said thanks very much. He said glad to do it and then inquired about my father, who he had known a long time.
After I met Matheson face-to-face some time later, he always remembered my name and recognized me thereafter - a mark I've found is invaluable to good politicians.
And Matheson was an excellent politician.
He positioned himself time and again on issues that favored Utahns. And he did it in ways that, if he wasn't successful, never hurt him.
Take, for example, the time he advocated a very large tax increase - $140 million - in 1984. You don't remember that, do you? That's because he did it very artfully.
Utah was suffering under the national recession, and state revenues were way down. Matheson suggested a number of tax increases. He built the tax increase into his budget request, hid it, if you will. He made it very difficult for the Republican-controlled Legislature to back the increase out. But more importantly, "as the gov would have said, he `marketed' the increase to citizens," recalls Mike Zuhl, Matheson's former budget director and now chief of staff to Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis.
He tied the tax increase to education, creating the career ladder pay plan and implementing "reforms" that citizens bought. He didn't take much heat for raising taxes.
Compare that strategy with Gov. Norm Bangerter's. In 1987, Bangerter took a huge tax increase on his shoulders, alone. He argued, also, that it was for education. But because it was a status quo budget, with little or no new spending programs, Bangerter was blamed by citizens for an ultimate tax hike that was only $25 million more than Matheson's just three years before.
Matheson also took on unwinnable, maybe even showmanship, issues. The Weteye bomb was a good example. When the military wanted to move the leaky chemical weapons from Denver to Utah to be destroyed, Matheson fought like a tiger.
He knew he couldn't stop the move. Almost all the experts said the bombs could be moved safely. But Matheson saw an issue where he could gain points with Utahns with little exposure to himself. I'm not saying he was insincere. He really didn't want the bombs in the state. But in the end the bombs came. None leaked, and Matheson looked good in the process.
Growing his beard after his 1983 heart attack was another popular, light issue. It showed people that the former governor could have some fun with himself.
Matheson got the best press any Utah politician could hope for. He got used to it and expected it. On the rare occasions when reporters did do critical stories on him, especially toward the end of his eight years in office, Matheson reacted testily. He didn't yell at reporters, but he once banned KUTV reporter Rod Decker from his office - a very extreme move - and he accused former Deseret News Political Editor LaVarr Webb of being out to get him.
Politics is timing and luck as much as anything. Matheson had both. He decided to run for governor in 1976 at the end of an era when a Democrat could be elected to statewide office in Utah. He was lucky to have a lackluster Republican opponent.
He won a rather close re-election race in 1980 and then smartly decided not to seek re-election in 1984. I believe he would have been defeated in the Ronald Reagan landslide that year.
In 1988, he wisely decided not to run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Orrin Hatch - a race I think he also would have lost.
So, Matheson goes out a winner, a well-loved, respected statesman. It's sad to lose him, but we should also be thankful we had him.