A Reluctant Warrior, Matsui Takes Helm at DCCC

Posted January 3, 2003 at 6:07pm

The man charged with returning Democrats to the House majority in 2004 admits he wasn’t initially thrilled with the idea.

“I was not interested in the sense that I wanted to be chairman of the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee],” said Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.), the incoming chairman of the DCCC.

Matsui said he changed his mind about the post during a 45-minute conversation with incoming Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Dec. 20.

“She really convinced me of the commitment of the Caucus and the leadership that we are going to take the House back,” Matsui said.

The choice of Matsui has energized House Democrats, who were somewhat downtrodden after losing six seats in the 2002 election cycle.

“He is an outstanding selection,” said DCCC transitional executive director Howard Wolfson. “[Matsui] is extremely well-regarded and respected in the Caucus and in the D.C. Democratic donor community.”

One senior Democratic aide was more frank about Matsui’s appeal: “He is a respected senior member and an ethnic minority.” Matsui is Japanese-American.

Matsui is also a close Pelosi ally, which means “there is someone loyal [at the DCCC] who will not challenge her,” the aide added.

Another staffer warned that Matsui “must be more than just Pelosi’s person at the DCCC,” however. “He must establish his own identity.”

Both incoming Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Conference Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) are considered rivals to the San Francisco Democrat.

Matsui said he expects to bring on several Members to serve in advisory roles, although no final decisions have been made. He mentioned Reps. Mike Thompson (Calif.) and William Jefferson (La.) — both of whom had been under consideration for DCCC chairman — as likely choices for these posts.

Despite being the only candidate publicly campaigning for the job, Jefferson was not chosen, a decision that rankled members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which had endorsed the Louisiana lawmaker for the job.

Thompson was considered an early favorite for the post until he accompanied Reps. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and David Bonior (D-Mich.) in a much-criticized trip to Iraq last fall.

And, although Matsui said that “the most important thing in any organizational structure is hiring the best staff you can find,” he has yet to name an executive director, political director or communications director.

Longtime Pelosi fundraiser Brian Wolff has moved to the DCCC and is widely expected to serve as the committee’s finance director for the 2004 cycle.

Wolfson, as well as press specialists Kim Rubey and Burns Strider, are working for the DCCC transition team.

At first glance, Matsui, a 13-term Member from Sacramento, seems an odd choice for this most political of posts.

During his Congressional tenure, Matsui has developed a reputation as one of the leading policy minds in his party, especially on issues such as Social Security and trade. He currently serves as the ranking member of the Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security.

[IMGCAP(1)] Matsui expressed little concern about his ability to transition from the policy front to the political one.

“If a person is competent and capable they can take any job,” he said. He dismissed criticism of his policy focus as “pigeon-holing.”

A Democratic aide said, however, that Matsui’s “challenge right off the bat will be whether he can demonstrate his acumen on political issues to the political community.”

“He has to translate legislative tenacity into fundraising and devising strategies to win back the House,” added the aide.

Although Matsui has not been intimately involved with the DCCC in past cycles, he has regularly donated large amounts from his own war chest to help the campaign committee stay financially competitive with the Republicans.

In 2002, Matsui gave more than $180,000 from his own coffers to the DCCC; in 2000 he chipped in better than $300,000.

“He has been a very successful fundraiser for a very long time,” said Wolfson.

Matsui’s fundraising credentials will be of critical importance in 2004 because of new campaign finance reform restrictions now in place.

The new law, which is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court, bans the campaign committees from raising soft, nonfederal dollars, which Democrats had grown increasingly dependent on over the past few cycles. As a result, bolstering their hard-dollar contributions becomes essential to Democrats’ chances of remaining financially viable.

“In the new hard-money era it was critically important for the chair to be someone who could engage his colleagues fully in the fundraising process,” said Wolfson.

Matsui faces an immediate fundraising test as he must work to erase the $5 million hard-dollar debt wracked up in the 2002 cycle by the committee while also paying staff and handling Member services.

Although Matsui generally draws plaudits for his willingness to take on this daunting post, there are also muffled voices of concern about his selection.

The largest issue is Matsui’s on-again, off-again relationship with the labor community because of his free-trade position.

Matsui headed up Democratic support for the passage of NAFTA in the early 1990s and was a major backer of fast-track trading authority in 1997.

In 2001, however, Matsui opposed a trade promotion authority bill that passed by one vote in a contentious back-and-forth fight.

Pointing to Matsui’s work against the latest trade bill, one senior Democratic strategist said that “labor has every reason to feel good about this pick.”

One Democratic aide said that Matsui’s relationship to labor is somewhat inconsequential because Pelosi has a strong working relationship with that community.

“[Former DCCC Chairwoman Nita] Lowey [N.Y.] was not very popular with labor either, but that didn’t matter because [then Minority Leader Richard] Gephardt [Mo.] was able to talk to labor and persuade them that they should participate,” the aide added.

Another former staffer at the committee was less optimistic, however.

“Matsui doesn’t make things [with labor] a lot worse, but he sure doesn’t make it any better.”