The widow conundrum

There’s a long and interesting history in American politics regarding the role of the widow. Six of the first 14 women ever elected to Congress were widows of incumbents. (Three more of those were daughters of politicians.) Since the 1920s, more than 35 widows have run—most of them successfully—for their deceased husband’s congressional seat.

We bring up the subject, of course, because of the recent announcement that Doris Matsui, the widow of Sacramento Congressman Robert Matsui, will run to fill his seat in the House of Representatives.

Would Doris Matsui make a good congresswoman?

It seems there’s no easy way in polite political circles to even ask this question without sounding coldhearted toward the widow and disrespectful to her dead husband. We know we can’t underestimate how difficult it must be these days to be Doris Matsui. The depth of her grief must be great. Any of us who lost a spouse so suddenly no doubt would feel the same. Even the fact that she felt the need to announce her candidacy so soon was sad. It underlined the political pressure she felt to make other potential candidates aware of her intentions.

State Senator Deborah Ortiz and former County Supervisor Grantland Johnson were the only ones to say they might run in the March special election for the seat. But Ortiz has already dropped out, saying it would be a “troubling thing” to run against this widow. After all, who wants to be perceived as halting the efforts of a woman trying to further the legacy of her dead husband? And Johnson dropped out of the race on January 18, saying he didn’t believe he could raise the necessary funds in time.

But none of that takes away the importance of that one question. So, we’ll repeat it: Would Doris Matsui make a good congresswoman?

As with many political widows, there’s basically no way to tell. She’s never run a campaign or been a candidate for public office. She’s never won or lost an election or learned from either or both of these experiences. She’s never represented a constituency of any size. She’s never done the work of politicians—determined when it’s time to fight and when it’s time to settle. All we know about Doris Matsui—other than her relationship to the legacy of Robert Matsui—is that she served as a deputy White House liaison (whatever that means) during the Clinton administration and currently works as a lobbyist for a law firm in Washington, D.C., though she is not a lawyer. As for national attention, she’s received it only once—for testifying in the “Chinagate” hearings—when the Clinton/Gore administration was accused of selling seats on trade missions in exchange for campaign contributions.

If we put aside the fact of Doris Matsui’s last name, has this woman accomplished anything in her career that should put her at the top of the list of those most worthy to represent Sacramento in the nation’s capital?

We honestly don’t think so. But that doesn’t change the fact that she’ll be almost impossible to beat.