Doris Matsui quickly cleared the field of any formidable challengers when she announced her candidacy 11-days after her husband died of a rare bone marrow disease. “Just a hint that Bob Matsui’s wife – Doris – might run scared off a number of prominent Democrats, Deborah Ortiz for example, Darrell Steinberg and many others in the Sacramento area who perhaps had thought about running but did not want to run against Mrs. Matsui.” Sacramento-based political analyst Steve Swatt says over the past two-decades it’s been fashionable for widowed wives of congressmen to go after their husband’s house seat. And most have been successful…including Palm Springs Republican Mary Bono who replaced her husband Sonny. “There’s a huge sympathy factor and you also have to remember this is a special election and so the campaign is truncated and there’s not a great deal of time for other candidates to raise money to mobilize their forces and so the one name on the ballot that has so much name identification is the widow.”
Among the eleven candidates challenging Matsui is fellow Democrat Julie Padilla. Padilla points out that over the past two months she’s been at every community forum and debate, but she still can’t compete with Matsui’s well-financed advertising budget. “Well, it’s been fast and furious that’s for sure with only 6 weeks from beginning to end it’s been uphill getting the message out to the voters and especially when you don’t have 800-thousand dollars to flood the airwaves with.”
Padilla says ultimately the voters are short-changed. “it is frustrating. It’s difficult when you don’t have publicly funded elections for people to actually operate on an equal playing field. If we did, we wouldn’t have one candidate who’s able to have a 30 second spot every half-hour on every TV station.”
The leading Republican in the race John Thomas Flynn says he knew it was going to be a tough battle especially in a heavily Democratic district, but he felt it was imperative to run. “I think when frontrunners are challenged it’s important, they should be challenged and the succession of office should come through healthy competition and not through some time-worn monarchial tradition.”
Despite attacks from her opponents about everything from her career as a Washington D-C lobbyist to past real estate deals, Matsui says she stayed focus on holding her lead. “I intended to run a full campaign and to talk about the issues and I also felt that it was important for the voters to know that I believe that they want to have civil discourse to raise the level of debate as far as the issues of today and not to be involved in some of the personal mud slinging.”
Swatt says for all the other candidates, mud-slinging was the only way to get their voices heard.
Her opponents therefore, are left to scrape for scraps of free publicity earning a paragraph here or there in a news story for example by criticizing her initial refusal to debate the issues by criticizing her use of a photo of Nancy Reagan in one of her ads by criticizing a land deal that she had and things like that. But barring some sort of scandal and some unforeseen disaster at the last minute, Doris Matsui likely will be the representative in congress of the 5th district, the question is whether she wins it outright during the primary by getting a majority of the votes cast or will she have to wait until a runoff.”
If Matsui wins more than half the vote today, she goes to Washington to serve out her late husband’s term. If not, the top vote getters square off in May. Meantime, Padilla, Flynn and other candidates say they’re already looking ahead to next year when the same seat will be up for grabs in November of 2006.