Facing a roomful of local Democratic Party activists Tuesday, Kathleen Matthews served up a large helping of her biography for breakfast—as she sought to assure the gathering of her credentials as a Democratic progressive.
“I want to introduce myself, maybe in ways that you haven’t heard me talk about myself before,” Matthews, one of seven candidates for the party’s 8th District congressional nomination, told the District 18 Breakfast Club in Silver Spring. She continued: “I am probably known by many people—and we’ll be taking a poll soon to see how well known—as a TV news anchor. What I think you don’t know about me is that I have had progressive Democratic values from the time before I even knew what they were.”
What followed was a lengthy recounting of her resume, beginning with her participation in anti-Vietnam War marches in college and continuing through a 25-year-long career at WJLA-TV in Washington—where Matthews described herself as “an advocate for people” as she covered education and other topics. “And I think that’s what Democrats do—we try to take situations and learn from them to the benefit of all people,” she declared.
Later, Matthews referred to herself as “sort of a progressive agitator in a pretty conservative institution,” in discussing her nine years as an executive at Bethesda-based Marriott International. She resigned last spring to run for Congress.
As the campaign ramps up after Labor Day, such presentations may be key to Matthews’ chances of success in next April’s crowded primary, as she seeks to convert—or at least disarm— party activists who often have greeted her candidacy with skepticism, at best.
Thanks to Matthews’ fundraising prowess—fueled by the network of connections that she and her husband, MSNBC talk show host Chris Matthews, have developed in Washington and across the country—she has been widely seen as one of the top contenders for the nomination for the seat being vacated by Rep. Chris Van Hollen. But there also has been griping in local party circles that she is seeking to use an abundance of campaign funds to compensate for a lack of either a clearly defined political past or a record of service in the local community.
Matthews, a Chevy Chase resident, acknowledged the task facing her in an interview following Tuesday’s breakfast. “I don’t see myself as an outsider because I have lived in Montgomery County for 20-plus years, and raised my kids here, and was deeply involved in speaking at high school graduations throughout Maryland’s 8th District,” she said. “I go to public events and people come up to me and say, ‘I remember when you interviewed me on this topic.’ That happens at every event. So I have really close ties.”
But she added: “The difference is that I have not been in the Democratic Party structure. And so that’s why it’s important to me to introduce myself to those Democratic Party activists, because they have much more regular connection with their state legislators who have been coming to their breakfasts and their party picnics.” It was an allusion to her two leading rivals in the contest: state Del. Kumar Barve of Rockville, a former majority leader in the House of Delegates, and state Sen. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park.
“During the days that I was a TV news reporter, nobody knew my politics,” Matthews noted during her talk to the District 18 breakfast. “I had to hold them close in because I had to be an independent voice. But it’s fun for me to kind of reintroduce myself in the context of being a Democrat.”
For Matthews, this process of reintroduction appears in part to be an effort to get beyond the early phase of the campaign—when, at times, her past commitment to the Democratic Party has been questioned. It has not escaped notice among some party activists that Matthews did not vote in Democratic primaries in either 2012 or 2014. Asked about this in Tuesday’s interview, Matthews said: “I believe I had unexpected travel. In the nine years I was with Marriott, I was probably out of town more than half the month—sometimes on totally unexpected travel.” She added that she had made an effort to participate in early voting or via absentee ballot when possible.
But it is a $2,600 personal contribution last November to Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri —who was previously the No. 3 ranking member of the House Republican leadership—that has dogged Matthews since she announced her candidacy in early June. “I was making that contribution on behalf of my company saluting what I think is somebody who is willing to work across the aisle to create jobs,” Matthews said in July during an appearance on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show.
On Tuesday, Matthews emphasized to Bethesda Beat that the contribution had been her choice, and that she had not been asked by her superiors at Marriott to donate to Blunt. She said her words on WAMU had been “ill-chosen,” and that she should have said the contribution to Blunt was “on behalf of an industry I believed in.”
Matthews noted that Blunt had been a leading sponsor of the Travel Promotion Act of 2010. “We created thousands of jobs because of that legislation,” said Matthews, who, according to Federal Election Commission records, has made nearly $50,000 in contributions to individual candidates since 2008; Blunt is the lone Republican. She added she hopes the Democratic challenger to Blunt in 2016—expected to be Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander—is successful next year. “I want a Democratic Senate,” she said. “The Democrats have to look at every viable Senate race they can.”
During her talk to the District 18 Breakfast Club, Matthews at times appeared to be trying to put some political daylight between herself and Marriott, a company founded and long controlled by a family prominent in national Republican politics. Put in charge of environmental sustainability efforts at the company, Matthews told of discussing climate change with long-time Marriott Chairman Bill Marriott “who, to be honest, when I told him I wanted to advance environmental sustainability, told me that he didn’t believe in climate change…He believes in climate change now. I was able to show him the scientific evidence but also the business case of why this could be good for the company.”
However, Matthews later disputed suggestions that her association with Marriott could be a potential drag on her candidacy among some Democratic voters. “Marriott has historically been considered to be one of the stellar businesses in the area—a huge employer, creating a lot of new jobs—and consistently is on best place to work lists,” she said. “So I think there’s a lot of good will for Marriott. For me, it’s talking about my record at Marriott and what I did while I was there.”
In addition to overseeing corporate communications and sustainability efforts at Marriott, Matthews—who, according to recent candidate financial disclosures, earned an annual salary of nearly $1.475 million before resigning last spring—boasted of having been “a strong voice for diversity” at the company. “We didn’t have a corporate-level diversity committee…and I worked with the CEO to create that,” she said. “Every time there was an opportunity for a promotion, I put a bunch of women [and minorities] out there to be considered.” She also spoke of launching a marketing campaign to attract LGBT customers, adding, “We looked for ways to signal this was a very inclusive company.”
Matthews will seek to translate those ties into support for her candidacy as the Sept. 30 deadline for filing fund-raising results with the FEC approaches. An event with LGBT supporters will be held Sept. 28 in Washington, although the Matthews campaign said it will feature many supporters from Montgomery County.
The next day, Matthews—who hopes to capitalize on concerns about the 2016 election possibly leaving Maryland’s congressional delegation without any female members—will hold a Washington event touting support among women, with members of the host committee including female members of Congress from Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan and New Hampshire. Also on the host committee: former Rep. Beverly Byron, D-Md., whose 6th District included Frederick County—a large part of which is now located in the 8th District, along with about half of Montgomery County and a piece of Carroll County.
The Matthews’ event comes just two days after Raskin is slated to hold a rally and fund-raising event in Bethesda sponsored by women supporting his candidacy. Besides Barve, Matthews and Raskin, the field of District 8 Democratic contenders includes Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase, former County Council member Valerie Ervin of Silver Spring, former Obama administration official Will Jawando of Silver Spring, and David Anderson of Potomac, an official of a Washington-based internship and seminar program.