When California Congressman Robert Matsui died on New Year's Day, the Democratic Party called on his widow, Doris Matsui, to run for his seat in a special election taking place Tuesday (March 8).
In nearly any other job, when a spouse passes away, the widow or widower would never simply step in and take over the position. However, when a member of the U.S. Congress dies unexpectedly, the practice has become nearly commonplace. The political party that controls the seat often needs to find a candidate quickly to run in a special election, and the lawmaker's widow has become a strong bet to win. Since 1923, 45 widows have replaced their husbands in Congress.
"She has some real advantages," says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "The biggest advantage, I think, is her name recognition and sympathy." Ms. Walsh says widows are often used as temporary "placeholders" who can serve in Congress until the party can groom a seasoned politician to take over the seat.
"Most of the women in history have gone on to just fill out that term and then retire from Congress," she notes. But that's not always been the pattern. "There are a number of women who have built their own political careers," she says. "They get there in the first place to kind of continue their husband's legacy, and then they get into Congress and then they see that they have an opportunity to really bring their own agenda to the fore."
That was the case for Lindy Boggs from Louisiana and Cardiss Collins from Illinois, who each served about two decades in the House of Representatives. Both retired in the 1990s.
Still, running a public campaign while privately grieving can be overwhelming. California Congresswoman Lois Capps ran for the House of Representatives seven years ago, after her husband Walter died in office. Shortly after she began campaigning, a reporter asked her about the experience. "I was sitting on a school playground," she recalls. "I said, 'It feels like a great big pit, or a hole in my soul and in my body, in my stomach.'"
Representative Capps says she was asked repeatedly why, as the widow of a Congressman, she should qualify to be in Congress herself. She is now in her fifth term in Washington -- and one of three women currently in Congress who were elected after their husbands died in office.
Several of Doris Matsui's opponents have complained that the election should not be a kind of coronation, like a queen taking over for a king. But voters interviewed recently at a midtown Sacramento coffee shop didn't feel that Ms. Matsui was simply being handed the office.
"It's not unfair and it's not sliding in," said Republican Steve Korach, 48. Calling Ms. Matsui's experience no different from President Bush taking advantage of his father's name, Mr. Korach said she still has to earn the votes. "So she's running for an office," he said. "We all registered [to vote]...the public is going to speak."
Charmayne Hale, 24, said the overriding issue is which candidate is most qualified -- and being the widow of a Congressman can be a positive. "Given that the husband would come home and probably discuss issues, problems he has confronted," she said, "I would think the widow would know a lot about what's required for the job. She'd probably have some of the social connections the husband has. She's been exposed. So I would think that would actually work out."
Unlike some widows who have run for Congress in the past, Doris Matsui enters the race with some political clout of her own. She's a long-time Washington lobbyist, and also served as a deputy assistant to President Clinton. Ms. Matsui says she wants voters to know who she is -- before the election.
"Bob and I had been married for 38 years, and he'd been in Congress for 26," she points out. "Obviously we shared that experience, and we had the same goals. He's no longer here. But I'm here, and I as an individual believe that I can accomplish a lot myself."
If she wins on Tuesday, Ms. Matsui says she will continue her late husband's work to fight Social Security privatization and help secure federal dollars for flood protection in Sacramento. She also wants to become involved in health insurance reform and advancing stem cell research. "My mother once told me that when one door closes, another one opens," she says. "I'm going through that door."
Doris Matsui is considered the strong favorite to defeat 11 lesser-known candidates in the March 8th special election. All of the prospective challengers who were considered more formidable opponents decided not to run -- not against the widow of a man who was considered an unbeatable incumbent.