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All Eyes Focused on Matsui Widow

The race to succeed the late Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.) may begin to evolve this week, following his funeral on Saturday.

Speculation continues to focus on Matsui’s 60-year-old widow, Doris, who has been urged to get into the race by several House Democratic leaders.

One House Democratic campaign operative said Friday that Doris Matsui hasn’t closed the door on running but has made clear she won’t make any decisions until this week at the earliest.

“It’s my sense she isn’t going to deal with it until after [the funeral] in California,” the source said. “She isn’t even dealing with it at this time. She hasn’t rejected it, but she hasn’t indicated she would do it.”

But another high-ranking Democratic aide said there is a better than 50 percent chance that Doris Matsui will run.

Congressman Matsui died on New Year’s Day at the age of 63 from complications resulting from a rare stem-cell disease.

With an all-party primary soon to be scheduled for March, many Democratic leaders and operatives in Washington, D.C., suggest that Doris Matsui — a lobbyist and former Clinton administration official — would have no problem waltzing into the seat her husband held for 26 years, if she wants to.

A runoff would be held in May between the top Democratic and Republican finishers if no one gets 50 percent in March.

But in California, where term limits have been in effect in the state Legislature since 1992, the view is somewhat different. With at least a handful of ambitious younger politicians eyeing Matsui’s Sacramento-based seat, some analysts believe that a Congressional vacancy is too valuable a prize to be handed to the Congressman’s widow without a fight.

Two California House Members, Mary Bono (R) and Lois Capps (D), faced tough special elections when seeking to succeed their husbands in Congress during the 1990s.

“Any state legislator would be interested in moving up [to Congress], but with term limits it gives them extra reasons to,” said Nik Bonovich, an editor of the California Target Book, which handicaps political races. “Democratic officeholders in Sacramento are obviously seriously looking at running even if Mrs. Matsui were to run for the seat.”

The two names most frequently mentioned are state Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D), who will be forced out of office by term limits in 2006, and former state Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D), who just left office due to term limits.

Both Steinberg and Ortiz — who share the combative California political consultant Richie Ross — had been plotting their next political moves prior to Congressman Matsui’s death.

Ortiz has filed to run for state treasurer in 2006, but that race is expected to be crowded. Steinberg, meanwhile, is considered a shoo-in to fill Ortiz’s Senate vacancy; he has already succeeded her in the state Assembly, and both served on the Sacramento City Council, as Matsui once did.

Steinberg said Friday he did not want to comment on his thoughts about the Congressional race until after the funeral, out of respect to Matsui and his family.

“There’s a tendency in politics to focus on the game,” he said. “This is about a person — and a great person.”

Ortiz, who moved to adjourn a state Senate session last week in Matsui’s memory, telling her colleagues, “he can never be replaced,” did not respond to telephone messages.

Other potential candidates mentioned for the 5th district seat are Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas, Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson, Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo, and former California Secretary of Human Services Grantland Johnson.

One California consultant suggested that with the state Legislature still fairly unpopular, Blanas, a veteran law enforcement officer, could contrast himself with the current and former state lawmakers. Blanas appears to be raising his political profile lately — he recently came out in favor of a proposed new arena for the Sacramento Kings basketball team.

But few if any of these potential Congressional candidates are expected to make a move until they get some indication of Doris Matsui’s plans. If she runs, she is certain to get widespread support from the Democratic establishment in D.C., making her the prohibitive favorite.

“Starting with a base of D.C. and [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] support is real hard to overcome,” said Larry Sheingold, a Sacramento-based Democratic consultant. “It’s a pretty tight fundraising window.”

At a memorial service for Robert Matsui in the U.S. Capitol last week, several prominent officials spoke at length of the couple’s political partnership. Doris Matsui is the director of government relations at the D.C.-based law firm Collier Shannon Scott. She also served in the Clinton White House.

“They were a team,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “They worked together in public service, for a while in two branches of government.”

Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.

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