Josh Kurtz: The Kathleen Matthews Difference

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Here are three things, right off the bat, that separate Kathleen Matthews from the typical Maryland congressional candidate:

-- Although Matthews officially launched her bid for the 8th District seat last week, with a candidate’s standard round of appearances at a Metro station, a senior citizens center and local businesses, she signaled her intention to run two months earlier, in Mike Allen’s Politico Playbook, the must-read newsletter for D.C. insiders. That’s an outlet not readily available to most Maryland pols. But here a star employee of the billionaire Allbrittons was doing a favor for a former star employee of the billionaire Allbrittons.  

--Just weeks before her official announcement, Matthews and her husband, MSNBC yakker Chris Matthews, adorned the cover of Washington Life magazine, a glossy society rag, in his and hers black suits, for a feature on the 100 most powerful Washingtonians. It seemed like the next logical step for the hype machine, following the mention in Playbook.

--Matthews was accompanied at her announcement by Anita Dunn, one of the biggest stars in the firmament of national Democratic consultants. Dunn’s firm, SKDKnickerbocker, has worked for plenty of candidates in Maryland before, but it isn’t every day that Dunn herself shows up at the Silver Spring Metro station before 8 o’clock in the morning.

So what can we conclude from these three simple facts? First, that the rich and politically connected, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald – who is, in case you’d forgotten, buried in the 8th District – are different from you and me. Robert Allbritton, the publisher of Politico, and Anita Dunn also appeared on the Washington Life power 100 list. It really is a small town, isn’t it?

What it all adds up to is that in a Democratic field that already has some strong contenders, Matthews will be very, very formidable in the race to replace Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D).

Not so long ago, it would have been easy to dismiss a vanity candidate like Kathleen Matthews, who spent 25 years on local TV and a decade as the top flack for Marriott. We’ve seen in the D.C. suburbs a parade of contenders who were big shots in their fields in Washington, or obscenely wealthy, but had no real local connections, so their campaigns fizzled.

But lately the paradigm has shifted, with the election of Larry Hogan as governor last year and Congressman John Delaney in 2012. Now it’s not so easy to write off the wealthy political novices. Anyone who sees Kathleen Matthews as the second coming of Lise Van Susteren or Ray Schoenke or Josh Rales will be sorely disappointed.

And you can’t really compare Matthews to Andy Barth, either. He’s the last well-known local TV personality to run for Congress, finishing fourth in the Democratic primary in the 3rd District in 2006, with 9 percent.

The key difference between Barth and Matthews is money. Barth, a fixture on Baltimore TV for years, spent $164,000 on his campaign -- $10,000 from his own pocket. It would not be surprising to see Matthews spend 10 or even 20 times that much, with a substantial portion coming from the family exchequer.

“I have no idea how much this campaign is going to cost,” she said at her initial news conference last week. Asked whether she’d be willing to self-fund, Matthews replied, “I hope to raise my money from the people who support me.”

That night, Matthews held her first fundraiser, which she described as a celebration “with a lot of my girlfriends.” You can be sure, however, that these weren’t the girls next door – unless you happen to live in the toniest precincts of Chevy Chase, Bethesda, Potomac and Northwest Washington.

Money isn’t everything, of course – far from it. But Matthews’ candidacy means that her opponents will have to spend much more time fundraising than they otherwise might – and that reality may even chase a couple of promising politicians out of the race. None of the other declared candidates is a stellar fundraiser.

State Sen. Jamie Raskin (D) is also one-half of a power couple – his wife Sarah Bloom Raskin is deputy U.S. Treasury secretary – and will be able to attract some local and national lefty money. But that only goes so far.

Del. Kumar Barve (D) and his wife, Maureen Quinn, a member of the State Workers Compensation Commission, appeared on the coveted Center Maryland power couples list in February 2014. He will tap into Indian-American fundraising networks. But that may have been an easier task earlier in his political career. Other Indian-American politicians have since eclipsed him.

Matthews is going to have the best campaign team money can buy – one that will strive to make her relatable in a district where she really isn’t. Not to mention that she’ll have a thousand political wise guys and gals, starting with her husband, kibitzing and clamoring to offer advice.

Already Matthews is smartly packaging herself as someone who has been, in her words, “a working mother, an education reporter, and a progressive business leader.” Voters will be hearing a lot about her “opportunity agenda” for women and children, which includes pay equity, a higher minimum wage, reproductive rights, quality education, and easy access to health care.

The other Democrats will be saying much the same, albeit in more mundane packaging. But if former Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin doesn’t run, Matthews could have this space largely to herself – and may be the only viable woman in the race. That could be significant.

Can a woman who’s one half of a rarefied Washington power couple and who lives in Chevy Chase convince the polyglot District 8 electorate – the minority voters, the young families struggling to meet their mortgage, the commuters stuck on the Beltway or on a broken-down Metro train, not to mention the small number of Democrats in Frederick and Carroll counties – that she’s one of them?

Of course, Raskin, with his frenetic energy and Harvard degrees and his association with myriad liberal causes, and Barve, the wily legislative veteran with the comedian’s timing but no children, aren’t the most relatable figures to the average voter, either. But most voters will at least understand and respect their legislative accomplishments.

Matthews will now embark on a 10 ½-month effort to meet voters and woo national and local interest groups. Even without the record of government service that her opponents have, she has the experience and poise to be able to speak fluently and passionately about a range of issues – and persuade voters that she’s worthy of their consideration.

Matthews acknowledged the credentials of her opponents, but said, “I think there's lots of experience you can bring to a race like this.”

Asked at her announcement last week what advice her famous and voluble husband had given her that morning, Matthews replied, “He said to smile.”

That should be Chris Matthews’ advice every morning. His wife may just be able to smile her way to a seat in Congress.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.