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Matsui Poised to Win

While Doris Matsui (D) plans to campaign until the polls close tonight in California’s 5th district special election, preparations are already under way in Washington, D.C., to welcome her to Congress.

Matsui, widow of the late Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.), is ticketed for an assignment to the Rules Committee and may even get a slot on another plum committee such as Budget.

“It pays to be a Californian in this Caucus,” as one House Democratic aide put it.

Doris Matsui, a 60-year-old D.C.-based lobbyist and former Clinton administration official, is the heavy favorite in today’s 12-candidate, all-party primary.

Assuming Matsui surpasses 50 percent of the vote, as expected, she will be sworn in Thursday. If she falls short, the top finishers from each political party, including the minor-party candidates, advance to a runoff May 3.

The field has three Democrats, five Republicans and one Independent, and one candidate each from the Green, Libertarian, and Peace and Freedom parties. With the special election the only thing on the ballot in the Sacramento-based district, turnout is expected to be light.

Democratic House leaders are still confident Matsui will win the seat today and are already thinking about how best to receive their new colleague.

Sources said Doris Matsui will likely be sworn in on the House floor on Thursday, with formal introductions from Rep. Pete Stark, the senior California Democrat.

“Doris Matsui will receive a warm welcome in the House of Representatives,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, chairwoman of the California Democratic delegation. “She is well-known and respected on both sides of the aisle. A position on the exclusive and powerful Rules Committee has been reserved for her. She will hit the ground running ready to serve her constituents in Sacramento as our beloved Bob did for so many years.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a close friend of the Matsui family, is planning to host a reception for the expected victor Thursday evening with other Democratic Members. A second formal welcome for Matsui should come next week at the Wednesday morning Democratic Caucus meeting.

Throughout the Caucus, sources said Democrats are anxious to welcome Doris Matsui to the House.

“She is very well liked in the Caucus,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “People will be very pleased to welcome her. She is the one person [Democrats] can all really rally around. They believe she is the best choice.”

Matsui would be the third Congressional widow in California’s 53-Member delegation, joining Reps. Mary Bono (R) and Lois Capps (D). Both won special elections to replace their husbands in 1998.

Matsui has considerably more Washington experience than either Capps or Bono did. Before becoming a candidate in early January, she was the director of government relations at the D.C. law firm Collier Shannon Scott, lobbying on behalf of technology manufacturers, telecommunications companies and financial institutions.

Matsui also served in the Clinton White House as deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of public liaison. In that role, she was the president’s liaison to the Asian-American community.

Just as Matsui’s expected election would represent a measure of continuity in California and in Congress, there is a strong possibility that Matsui will retain many of her husband’s former staffers. Several have remained on the Congressional payroll since the Congressman’s death, tending to constituent concerns under the supervision of the House Clerk’s office.

Jim Bonham, a longtime chief of staff to the late Congressman who worked under him in the 2004 election cycle as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has been a key campaign adviser to Matsui and is likely to remain so after she is elected. Bonham has also produced TV ads for her campaign.

Nick Pappas, a spokesman for Matsui, said the candidate has been too focused on the election to say anything publicly about staffing a Congressional office.

Although victory seemed inevitable, Matsui spent the final full day of the campaign Monday at a senior center in Sacramento and walking precincts in the district.

After voting today, Matsui is expected to continue knocking on doors, “letting people know about the election,” and visiting polling places, Pappas said. Her election night party will be held at her campaign headquarters in Old Town Sacramento.

Although no public polls have been released on the race, another Democrat, law school dean Julie Padilla, is thought to be running a distant second. Some Republicans openly hope that Padilla, a favorite among the district’s most liberal voters, will do well enough to force Matsui into a runoff.

John Thomas Flynn, California’s chief technology officer under former Gov. Pete Wilson (R), and Sacramento lawyer Shane Singh appear to be the leading Republican candidates who would be poised to benefit from a stronger-than-expected showing by Padilla. Even then, Matsui would be the overwhelming favorite in a runoff in a district where 53 percent of the voters are enrolled Democrats.

Matsui’s swearing-in will serve as a bittersweet reminder to House Democrats, who lost their colleague just two months ago.

Robert Matsui, a 13-term lawmaker with strong personal friendships throughout Congress, died of a rare blood disorder on New Year’s Day. He served as one of the most senior members of the exclusive Ways and Means Committee and carved out a niche as the party’s foremost expert on Social Security.

“It will be a hard day for some because it will remind them of Bob Matsui, whom they liked and admired,” said the leadership source. “I’m sure for Mrs. Matsui, it will also be a bittersweet day.”

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