Matheson faces Dem backlash over reform

The congressman was booed and heckled at caucus meetings.
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Fed up Utah Democrats booed and heckled Rep. Jim Matheson's top lieutenants at a number of party caucus meetings in Utah on Tuesday -- and even some of his supporters say they've had enough.

"The health reform vote is just more than we can stomach," said Ron Spinelli, a Democratic delegate from Ivins who backed Matheson in the past, but won't this year. "What a disappointment he has been."

A sizeable group of Utah Democrats have long been frustrated by Matheson's conservative streak, but his health reform opposition has pushed that tension to new heights.

And the timing of the final vote could not have been more politically inconvenient for Matheson, who is running for a sixth term. The House narrowly passed health reform Sunday, with Matheson joining 33 Democrats and every Republican in opposition. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law Tuesday morning, leaving the issue fresh in the minds of Utah Democrats who attended caucus meetings.

The delegates elected at those meetings have the power to pick the party's candidates. They will gather on May 8 for the state convention and for the first time Matheson has a Democratic challenger in Claudia Wright.

Party insiders don't expect Wright, an educator new to campaigning, to be able to knock off the experienced and well-financed Matheson, but they do expect a fight.

"This will be a more difficult state convention for Congressman Matheson than the past ones have been," said Patrice Arent, Utah's Democratic committeewoman and a Matheson supporter. "I think this vote is certainly part of that."

Arent was one of hundreds of Democrats who gathered at Skyline High School's cafeteria Tuesday where she heard Matheson's spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend address a hostile audience.

"There were angry voices raised last night against the congressman," Heyrend said. "This is personal for people. Jim gets it."

Matheson didn't attend any of the meetings personally because Congress was still in session, but he did get updates from his campaign and congressional staffs.

"I certainly respect the passion that is out there and the emotion around the health care issue," he told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday. "It affects everyone so personally. I fully understand that passion."

He plans to counteract the anger the old fashioned way, by talking to those who feel aggrieved.

Wright, who attended the same meeting as Arent and Heyrend, left invigorated and optimistic about her chances.

"I had no idea there was this kind of groundswell," she said. "There was a lot of animosity against Mr. Matheson, particularly with how he voted against health care."

Her supporters have started a Facebook group named "Oust Matheson at State Convention," which has more than 200 supporters, including some former party leaders, such as former deputy director Craig Axford and ex-communications director Jeff Bell. Some who have signed up name his vote against health reform as the reason why.

Matheson says he agrees that the health system needs changes and he even likes a number of provisions in the bill, but ultimately he thought it was too expensive and did too little to stop medical inflation.

The congressman has explained his views in private conversations with state Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, who said he simply disagrees.

"I think people respect Jim and like him," King said. "He is just on the wrong side of history."

He said Matheson's name was never uttered during speeches at his caucus, though people brought up his health reform vote in private conversations.

"By and large the great majority of those folks were unhappy," he said. "It was a very unpopular vote."

King believes the anger over this vote surpasses what party activists felt about Matheson's opposition to gay marriage, abortion rights and the administration's climate change legislation. He expects Matheson will face some push back at the convention, but he also believes Democrats will once again rally around him as their best chance at winning in a district that leans Republican.

"I don't see Jim not being the nominee, one way or another," said King.

Matheson didn't take a beating in every caucus meeting. Steve Barth was elected as a delegate in the Olympus area and he said while a few people expressed frustration, no one booed.

"I think there was a realization that he is the best guy out there for Democrats," said Barth, a former state lawmaker and a Matheson supporter.

Joe Hatch, a leading Democrat on the Salt Lake County Council, also expects Matheson to cruise to re-election this year, though he said Matheson could face a much bigger Democratic revolt in 2012 when Utah is expected to receive another seat in the House.

The state Legislature could create a more liberal district than Matheson currently represents, presenting an opening for another Democrat to challenge the congressman.