Stepping Out Of The Shadows
By Andrea Todd
Posted on October 12
Photo by Janine Mapurunga
“She’s cute as a bug’s ear.”
That’s how Gregory McNeill, secretary and former president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 500, describes Doris Matsui. McNeill says Matsui is perhaps more committed to his agency’s issues than her husband was. Health care, affordable education, responsible energy use and, of course, flood control, are all issues at the top of her agenda. Some, like flood control, are local concerns that her husband pushed for two decades. Others, such as health care access, are national issues she believes need to be addressed immediately.
McNeill is not the only one who is pleased with Doris Matsui’s performance thus far. Since deciding she wanted to run for her husband’s seat herself, say city officials, Matsui been doing the job extremely well.
“I’m amazed by how much she’s actually here,” says Mayor Heather Fargo.
“Especially so soon after her husband’s death. When you think about it, her family—her son and her granddaughter—are in Washington, D.C. She probably has close friends there. And yet she’s been very present here in Sacramento, getting to know her constituents, reaching out and making contact with everyone. It’s very impressive.”
Nancy Arndorfer, past president of the Sacramento Association of Realtors—and, she points out, a registered Republican—proudly states that she has voted for a Matsui “every two years.”
“I live in a high-risk flood area,” she explains. “It’s an important issue for many people who live here, and the many who are thinking about moving here.”
Matsui understands that while flood control may not be an important issue east of the Mississippi (in fact, says Supervisor Illa Collin, the government has been reluctant to allot federal funds for any dam west of it), it’s a huge issue here. Residents in these districts need to consider flood insurance, for example, and may or may not be the recipients of federal aid should there be floods such as those that occurred in 1987 and 1996. Doris Matsui has insisted that Sacramento needs 200-year flood control and that the Auburn Dam is not the way to achieve that.
“Doris Matsui has made it clear that she is as committed to this issue as her husband was,” Arndorfer says. “She met with us and assured us she would continue to work to get us the flood control we need.”
Arndorfer proudly adds that she has known Doris Matsui from her years of involvement with Junior League. “I’m very impressed with her,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see her doing so well.”
While most inevitably make comparisons to her late husband, others insist that those expecting just an extension of Bob Matsui—his politics, his policies, his demeanor—will be disappointed.
“She has already distinguished herself,” points out Muriel Johnson, a Republican and former Sacramento County supervisor. “While Bob was one of the crafters of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) under President Clinton, Doris voted against the CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) plan. And I think this is just the tip of the iceberg. Given time, she will continue to distinguish herself and make her own way.”
“My experience with her so far is that she’s committed to veterans’ issues,” says McNeill, explaining how she pushed to get an 80-year-old World War II veteran the Purple Heart he’d had a hard time getting. “She got it for him,” says McNeill. “These men have laid life and limb out of loyalty to their country, and she is making sure past wrongs are corrected. There will be more of these issues as men continue to come home from Iraq. People like her are needed in Congress,” says McNeill, adding, “She’s even more accessible than her husband was.”
And that, most are quick to point out, is saying something.
Her husband, Robert Matsui, was well-regarded as a great negotiator, an effective politician who was able to work out compromises on hot-button issues such as flood control while fighting for personal convictions, such as redress and a formal apology to Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps during World War II. Robert Matsui was a study in moderate politics: critical of the Patriot Act, supportive of free trade, and pro-choice. He was called a “maestro” at politics (by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi), a veteran politician who, according to former Rep. Vic Fazio, had been growing increasingly frustrated at his inability to get anything done because of how bitter and partisan things had become in Congress.
“There was this misconception about my father, that he was this guy who was mellow and pleasant and easy to get along with,” says Brian Matsui, 33, an attorney based in Washington, D.C. “The truth is, when he was fighting for a piece of legislation and was, for example, dealing with someone who wasn’t being 100 percent accurate, he could be quite vicious.”
So, then, what of the fact that Doris Matsui’s style may be “quieter” than her husband’s? (“If Doris felt the need to tell you something, it was sweet and done nicely,” Johnson says, “a contrast to her husband’s more direct confrontational manner.”) A newly elected Matsui might need to bare more teeth, not less. But while vicious is not a word anyone would use to describe Doris Matsui, Collin argues, people who meet and expect to deal with this “nice, sweet lady” will eventually meet a “woman with a spine of steel.”
It’s been a busy week, with speaking engagements, press conferences and public events addressing everything from identity theft to mass transit. Doris Matsui has met the press, answered questions and read books to toddlers. She is preparing to return to Washington, D.C., where she can’t wait to see her grandaughter, Anna Matsui.
“She’s such a wonderful child, bright and smart, and she has this way of . . . knowing,” says Matsui. “A few days before Bob died, he was lying in bed, and she was being wiggly, as an 18-month-old will be. And suddenly, when Bob said something to her, she placed her hand on his and stood very still. It was as if she knew this was a time to be still and serious.”
In her spare office, located downtown in the courthouse recently named for him, where he worked for more than 25 years, large family portraits grace the entry. It does not quite yet seem her own space; Bob Matsui’s presence looms.
But Doris Matsui is quick to assert that she is not her husband.
“It surprises me that people expect me to be exactly like my husband in this job. I am a different person, after all. I don’t know why anyone would expect that.”
Her story is in some ways similar but in many ways different from her husband’s.
Born in September 1944, three years after the attack on Pearl Harbor and a year before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Doris Okada grew up in Dinuba, 30 miles west of Fresno, on a fruit farm. It is possible, she says, that she owes her existence to the internment of Japanese Americans at the time: Both her parents were interned at Postin, a camp in Arizona. “I think they met there,” she says. “They never talked about it.”
She explains that, compared to others interned at those camps, her father’s family was fortunate, in that a group of Mennonites ran the farm while they were away; the Okadas eventually were able to return, farm and family intact. It wasn’t until after her father had died that Doris Matsui realized what her parents had gone through in that internment: She found, among his personal effects, journals and letters that detailed the experience. “There were a series of letters from a man named Murphy, asking my father what should be done about this and that regarding a side business he had,” she remembers. “Eventually, the letters indicated that my father realized he couldn’t run the business from the camp and relinquished the business to the man.”
The Okadas encouraged the complete Americanization of their children, Matsui believes, to ease the burden of being anything otherwise. “Student council, pompom girl, all those things—my parents wanted an American teenage life for me.” After graduating valedictorian of her class and being elected Spring Queen, young Doris Okada enrolled at University of California, Berkeley, just as the free speech movement was gearing up. “I like to tell people it was loafers and camel coats when I started, beads and sandals when I finished.”
It was there that she met her future husband at a party. He was finishing law school at Hastings in San Francisco; she was finishing school at UC Berkeley, where she was studying psychology.
“I was with someone else, in fact, and a friend of mine said to me, ‘You have to meet this person,’ and so we were introduced.” She recalls that afterward he called her “right away,” but that she “put him off for a bit.”
“I used to tell him we never would have gotten together if not for that voice. Bob had this wonderful voice, very deep and resonating.”
The Matsuis moved to Sacramento shortly after marrying. “Bob told me we’re going back to live in Sacramento. And I remember saying, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ Because I think when you grow up in a small town, like I did, once you leave you want to live in a bigger city or in the Bay Area. But Bob was determined to return. He had strong ties to this community.”
In Sacramento, Doris Matsui got a job, “of all things,” she says, as a systems analyst for what was at the time CalPERS. It was primarly a computer job. Matsui was probably one of the very first “computer geeks,” and she admits that the part of the job she enjoyed most was “talking to people, figuring out what they needed. It was good training for a [political] job,” Matsui says.
Her husband was doing well in his private law practice, and the two became active in social organizations: Junior League, the Sacramento Symphony League, alumni groups. “We got to know a broad base of people,” she says.
Eventually, Bob Matsui was approached about running for city council, which he did in 1971. At the time, city politics was a community service position, remembers Matsui. “No one was paid, no one was full time.” Just 30 years old, Bob Matsui was considered by some “too young” to run for such an office, but the father-to-be was elected nonetheless. He was re-elected in 1975, served as vice mayor of Sacramento in 1977, and was elected to Congress in 1978, winning re-election 13 times.
Doris Matsui actively campaigned for her husband while pregnant with their son (born five years after they were married, early in 1972) and throughout his political career. And yet, Brian Matsui remembers his mom being home with him much of the time. “She was certainly around much more than my father was, but the two seemed very equal as parents. One wasn’t necessarily more or less strict than the other,” he says, adding that he was never “plopped in front of a television set” or set in the middle of a pile of toys and told to “play.”
“I know my mother was busy with community work and social functions and such, but my memory of her was that she was home with me, reading to me, playing with me, very hands-on.”
“It’s not like she got up off the sofa to do this,” says Muriel Johnson, who served as a Sacramento County supervisor for 12 years and is now president of the California Arts Council. “She’s been active in the community since she moved here with her husband—in Junior League, in KVIE, in the University of California Women’s Club of Sacramento.” When she moved to Washington after her husband was elected to Congress, “there was a huge void left in Sacramento by the departure of Doris Matsui,” Johnson says, adding that, even during the years the Matsuis made their home in D.C., Doris Matsui “nurtured her friendships” here in Sacramento. “The day the Matsuis returned, you would always get a call from Doris,” says Johnson. “She was always willing to get involved, to take on responsibilites. And if Doris handled something, it was always well-handled. Well-organized, well-planned. She was the woman you wanted to do whatever needed doing.”
In 1992, with her son away at college (Stanford University), Doris Matsui went to work for the Clinton administration—first on his successful presidential campaign, and then as one of an eight-person transition team, she guesses, because she had the experience of being both a Washington outsider and—having lived there for more than decade at that time—an insider. Doris Matsui was also one of the first appointed to work in the White House, as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of Public Liaison.
She recalls those early days of the Clinton administration as “an exciting time.”
“Everyone was young and fresh. There were many good ideas that came to fruition in those early days,” says Matsui, who speaks highly of both Clintons, especially Hillary.
“You know how you hear about some people that they think in complete sentences before they speak? Hillary thinks in complete paragraphs,” says Matsui, adding the little-known fact that the former first lady and current U.S. senator “is very funny, great at doing impressions of people.”
Of whom, she will not say—proof that Matsui knows how to be politic. She is savvy; she has the lay of the land. Like the best of them, she knows how to deflect a leading question: When asked about any key differences on the issues she may have had with her husband, she responds vaguely: “We have the same value system. We are different people, of course, but I’m sure we agree on most things because of this.”
When asked if she is excited about the possibility of Hillary Clinton making a run for the presidency, she carefully replies that, as the wife of a former president, Hillary Clinton certainly knows what it takes to hold the highest office in the land, and that she has “shined” as a U.S. senator. Matsui will only say that when she makes a decision about who to vote for, she will think it over and consider everything carefully.
When asked what Democrats can do to win the White House in 2008, she replies: “To be effective in politics, you need to think in terms of serving the people. You need to figure out what they need. Democrat, Republican, it doesn’t matter—it all comes down to wanting people to succeed, all people, not just select groups. It’s about making families, all families, from every class, feel safe, able to have jobs and health care and good education.”
She says the current governor of California understood this—once. “Because he [Arnold Schwarzenegger] was elected by such a broad base, there was a real opportunity there for him. He was perceived as being for the people, elected by the people. But he has learned that being a governor is a lot different than being a celebrity. Had he pursued the issues [that got him elected], he’d be in a very different position than he is now.” Matsui has endorsed Democrat Phil Angelides for governor in the 2008 election.
In the past few years, she says, since Clinton left office, America has “fallen behind on certain issues,” such as health care, which she plans to make one of her top priorities while in Congress. “California often leads the nation in policy,” she says, explaining why her position in Congress is an important one. “Often, where legislation is concerned, other states follow our lead.” Our issues—those of immigration, veterans’ benefits, energy use, education and transportation policies—are becoming national issues, Matsui explains, and it is not unreasonable to think that other states may look to California for possible solutions to tomorrow’s problems.
She also points out that she isn’t just another politician’s widow who, in the words of conservatives like her most vocal election opponent, Republican John Flynn “inherited” her congressional seat.
“The other women who have been elected to their husband’s office after unexpected death—and there aren’t many—those men had been newly elected in almost every case. My husband had been doing this for 26 years,” she points out. But she does not boast about what others repeatedly state: that Doris Matsui has actually been doing this with her husband for 26 years.
“Doris Matsui has been around for a long time, receiving awards and recognition for her community work for years,” says Betty Perry, of the Older Womens League of Sacramento.
“It’s no surprise Doris knows what she’s doing,” says Johnson. “Both the Matsuis have been doing this for a long time. She’s watched her husband get backed into a corner; she’s watched him squirm. She’s been at his side for the entirety of his political career. It’s no wonder she’s good at it.”
The days after his father died, Brian Matsui recalls how people in Washington immediately approached his mother about running for his father’s vacant seat. “It was New Year’s Day, and people were coming over and wanting support. She had that busy period that got her through that period of acute mourning at first. But she knew that she had to decide within 100 days.”
“The first thing I wanted to do was get Bob home, to Sacramento,” Doris Matsui recalls. “I knew that once that was done, once I got Bob home, I could think about it. I didn’t want to think about it at first.
“I wanted to run for the right reasons. Not just to honor his memory, but because I really wanted to do the job, and serve this district,” she says.
My mom needs to do this job independent of my dad,” Brian Matsui agrees. “To continue the things he wanted to do, but also represent the community. You can’t do this as a way to mourn someone.” Coming back to Sacramento, says Brian, cleared his mother’s head.
“She could have spent these years relaxing and doing what she enjoys most, like being a grandmother,” says her son. “But she decided to do this instead, because she believed it was the right thing to do. She’s the best person for the job, the one who knows what the constituents of this district want and need.”
Two-year-old Anna Matsui asks for her “mimi” quite a bit, says Brian Matsui. “And my mother isn’t able to spend as much time with her as she’d like, now that she has this new job that takes up a lot of her time. It’s a sacrifice, but hopefully it’s a sacrifice that Anna will grow to appreciate. That this job is a service job that requires sacrifice.”
It’s been seven months since Doris Matsui was sworn in. “I don’t know that I would say she’s still in mourning, exactly,” Brian Matsui says to those concerned about his mother, concerned that she’s not had adequate time to grieve. “I know she misses my dad, that she still thinks about him a lot.”
Bob Matsui was her best friend, her partner, the love of her life. But, says Doris Matsui herself, mourning him is not going to be the focus. He wouldn’t want that, she says.
“I’m excited about this new chapter in my life. I have a confidence and serenity that surprises me. I know my husband, and he’s very happy for what’s happening to me today.”