Matsunaga: Third Time’s A Charm?

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - May 17, 2006

Matt Matsunaga is making his third bid for a seat in the United States House of Representatives.

Matsunaga first ran in 1990 - for the 1st District congressional seat once held by his father. He was 31 years old, had never before held public office, and faced two experienced Democratic office-holders: former state legislator and City Councilman Neil Abercrombie and state Senate president Norman Mizuguchi.

Matsunaga finished third.

In 2003, Matsunaga ran second to Ed Case in the special election to fill the 2nd District seat left vacant by the death of Patsy Mink. Case got 43 percent of the vote, Matsunaga 30 percent, and Colleen Hanabusa - also running this year - 8 percent.

“Ed Case’s win was about timing” says Matsunaga. “Ed had momentum on his side.” That he did. Case had been campaigning for more than a year, had almost won the Democratic nomination for governor, and then won a special election to fill the few weeks left in Mink’s unexpired term. When the race for the full two-year term, every voter in the 2nd District had shaken Case’s hand - “four times,” in Matsunaga’s telling.

Momentum may not be the issue this year, but name recognition might. In at least one early poll of the Democratic hopefuls, Matsunaga and former Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono led the large-and-still-growing field by a considerable margin.

Matsunaga bridles at the suggestion that his several congressional candidacies are symptomatic of a bad case of Potomac fever: “If Potomac fever means I want to serve the people of Hawaii in Congress, then it’s true. That’s been a dream of mine. My passion for public service comes from my family - from my father ... I have a Washington background and a proven record in the state Legislature. I’ve lived and worked in Washington and know how it works. I also have a business background. I’m a CPA and a business attorney.”

Matsunaga grew up in Maryland where his parents resided while father Spark served in Congress. Matt worked as a Capitol Hill page. He attended Bucknell University where he studied accounting, and on graduation went to work for Price Waterhouse. He left to earn a law degree at Georgetown University.

Matsunaga spent 20 years of his professional career in Hawaii with the law firm of Carlsmith Ball, where Ed Case was one of his partners. Last year Matsunaga moved to a smaller firm. He cites a deep seawater air-conditioning project as an example of a small Hawaii business he’s helping.

“The company would use cold seawater from 1,600 feet deep, use it to chill fresh water, then circulate that through downtown office buildings,” says Matsunaga. “It would result in a 40 percent savings in electrical costs for Honolulu businesses. It’s done in Sweden, Toronto, at Cornell University. It’s a very viable project.”

With former Maui state Sen. Avery Chumbley, Matsunaga co-chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We had a significant impact on crime reduction,” he says. “When we took over that committee, Hawaii had the second-highest property crime rate in the nation. The laws we helped pass resulted in a 30 percent reduction in property crimes.”

Matsunaga calls himself “a moderate Democrat, similar to Ed (Case) on most things.”

But not on all.

“I would have voted against the war in Iraq, but since we’re there, we must do all we can to protect our troops and take care of the veterans. We need a firm exit strategy. We’ve reached the point of diminishing returns with every day we stay in Iraq.”

Matsunaga characterizes Republican tax policy in Washington as “horrible” because tax cuts go disproportionately to the rich.

Matsunaga’s first marriage ended in divorce. He recently remarried; he brings two girls to the new family, wife Janel - a Kaiser Permanente nurse - brings one.

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