Matsui vs. Dean

Should the Democratic Party stay the course or open up to a debate on ideology?

Sacramento Congressman Robert Matsui riled Howard Dean supporters by dismissing him as a candidate to chair the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Sacramento Congressman Robert Matsui riled Howard Dean supporters by dismissing him as a candidate to chair the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Photo By Larry Dalton

Last week, Sacramento’s man in Washington, Robert Matsui, aroused the wrath of at least some of the folks whom former presidential candidate Howard Dean likes to call the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” The cause of the controversy was a quote appearing in the Washington, D.C.-based newspaper The Hill, wherein Matsui responded to reports that Dean is considering a bid to take over the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

“We need someone who is part of the Democratic establishment, someone who is more of a known quantity,” Matsui commented. “It’s extremely important that we don’t go through a debate about ideology.” Instead, Matsui said the party should be looking at Alexis Herman, who was the first African-American to be appointed secretary of labor, or Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, when it comes to choosing the next DNC chair come February.

Matsui’s remark immediately circulated throughout the Internet, earning headlines and rebuttals from sites like AlterNet (“Matsui’s braindead on the Democratic Party”), Daily Kos and the newly created

Locally, Matsui’s stance holds particular resonance for Pat Driscoll. The founder and president of Sacramento’s Veterans for Peace, Driscoll ran against Matsui for California’s 5th District congressional seat on the Green Party ticket. During the race, Driscoll was particularly critical of the 13-term Democrat’s “lack of leadership” when it came to opposing the war in Iraq. Driscoll takes particular exception to Matsui’s argument that the party should not engage in a debate about ideology.

“That’s clearly representative of Matsui’s penchant for not wanting to debate anything, as he showed in his recent non-campaign for office,” said Driscoll, who praises Dean for his unambiguous opposition to the war. “And I think the election results speak to the lack of ideology that Democrat leaders like Representative Matsui espouse.”

Still, even if such a strategy did contribute to Democratic defeat on a national level, it hasn’t hurt Matsui, who coasted to victory with more than 70 percent of the vote. “I think part of it is that people are so used to voting for him that, in a time of unrest, he is a comfortable choice,” said Driscoll, who received only 3.4 percent of the vote. “He intentionally stays under the radar, so people don’t pick up any controversy in regards to his positions. And so the people of Sacramento are comfortably numb about what Representative Matsui is or is not doing, and Representative Matsui is very happy to keep them that way.”

Local DNC member Alice Huffman says Matsui has a point.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Regarding Dean’s chances of transforming the Democratic establishment from the inside, Driscoll isn’t optimistic. He points out that even if Dean does become DNC chairman, there’s still “a huge embedded money base” standing in the way of effective change. “Representative Matsui had a big hand in establishing that,” said Driscoll, referring to Matsui’s role as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Sacramento-based DNC member Alice Huffman, who served as chair of the 2004 National Democratic Convention Committee, said Dean was “a real inspiration” for the Democratic Party during the presidential primary campaign. “I think he really dealt with the issues that true-blue Democrats wanted dealt with, and in a way that party loyalists could identify with him,” said Huffman. “And I think he made an invaluable contribution to the campaign because of that.”

But Huffman sees that as a separate issue from who should be running the DNC. “I like what I saw when he ran, but that doesn’t give me insight into how he would be as the chair of the Democratic National Committee,” said Huffman, noting that such a position would be problematic should he choose to run for president again. “People would have to feel that he was really working on behalf of candidates and not on behalf of himself,” she added. “And that’s not something that I have had a chance to talk to him about, but I will talk to him about it whenever the call comes, as it will, for my endorsement.”

In any event, Huffman doesn’t agree with the view that change can only come from an “outsider.”

“I think somebody can be familiar with the system and probably shake it up better than somebody who doesn’t know the system,” she said, noting that an outsider would have to deal with false starts and people digging in on their points of view. “He certainly wouldn’t have the credentials, say, of Alexis Herman, who was inside the DNC with Ron Brown and who ran a convention and who knows the ins and outs of that Washington scene. So, I think there might be some credence to what Congressman Matsui has said.”

Even Dean’s local supporters have mixed feelings about a potential candidacy for DNC chair. “The camp is pretty much evenly divided on this, and that division of sentiments comes down here locally in Sacramento,” said Karen Bernal, who describes herself as “de facto and default chair” of the group Sacramento for Democracy. Bernal feels Dean would continue to be most effective by maintaining his outsider status rather than going behind closed doors with entrenched party leadership. “They fought tooth and nail to get there, and they are the benefactors of some big money and big influence,” said Bernal, “and they have no intention of walking away simply because this person and the constituency that he leads want reform.”

Bernal is quick to point out that other leaders of her group don’t share her view and are supporting the nascent “Draft Howard” movement. What they do agree on is the need for change within the party. “I think that Matsui’s reasoning, if he really feels that way, is delusional,” said Bernal. “It’s also wishful thinking if he thinks that they’re going to avoid that debate. Because the only thing that’s going to save the Democratic Party, if it can be saved, is to be able to be honest and confront the things that have made the party dysfunctional.”

Matsui was unavailable for comment at press time because of holiday commitments. However, his Washington press spokesman, Matthew Beck, confirmed that the congressman’s statement in The Hill appears consistent with his general views. “Given the fact that it was quoted in The Hill, I think that’s a pretty valid assessment,” said Beck. “He hasn’t come to me since that article came out and said, ‘Hey, you need to get a retraction,’ or anything like that.”

Then again, he might want to. Although the insider publication correctly recognizes Matsui’s role as a powerful Washington player, it’s a bit fuzzy on his responsibilities beyond the beltway. In the same article that sparked the controversy, The Hill refers to Matsui as the Democratic representative from Hawaii.