Matsunaga has name, drive to sit in Congress
By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Government Writer
By Treena Shapiro
In the four years he has been away from public office, Matt Matsunaga has found love, switched law firms and strengthened his relationship with God.
He has merged his passions for peace and veteran's rights, participating in several peace-related projects, including a 2007 calender featuring veterans' artistic depictions of peace.
On the energy front, he has worked on a deep-water air-conditioning project that has won support not only from local environmental groups pushing for renewable-energy resources, but the electric utility itself.
Along the way, however, he hasn't lost sight of his desire to serve Hawai'i in Congress, a goal that has eluded him twice in the past.
His first hurdle in getting to Congress is winning the nomination over the other nine Democrats in the Sept. 23 primary. The winning Democrat will face off in the Nov. 7 general election against whichever of the two Republicans emerges from that party's primary.
With analysts and observers predicting the Democratic primary winner might have to garner only 20 percent of the vote, Matsunaga has an advantage over many of the other candidates, with statewide name recognition after his bid for lieutenant governor in 2002 and a surname voters are accustomed to seeing on the ballot.
Nevertheless, in a primary contest filled with credible candidates, Matsunaga, like the others, has had difficulty differentiating himself from others with similar positions on issues like war, education and the environment. "I think the one thing that sets me apart is an emphasis on small business and veterans' rights," he said.
The business attorney and certified public accountant has actually become a small-business owner in his own right, ending two decades with the large Carlsmith Ball law firm, where he was a partner, to become a partner at the smaller Schlack Ito Lockwood Piper & Elkind, where he is also a partner.
When it comes to bringing soldiers back from Iraq, Matsunaga wants to see a reasonable timetable for troop withdrawal that considers the political realities. He adds, "We need to make sure we take care of our veterans when they come home," he said.
As he talks with voters, Matsunaga also brings up his desire to fight for working families. "The American dream of homeownership is a Hawai'i fantasy," he said.
To help the middle class, he'd like to adjust the alternative minimum tax that is meant to collect more from wealthier Americans. In addition, he said, "We need to divert President Bush's tax cuts to the working-class families, not just the multimillionaires."
Generally liked and respected, Matsunaga is criticized most prevalently over the perception that he's relying too heavily on the reputation of his father, U.S. Sen. Spark Matsunaga.
"It was our mutual dream that I succeed him," he said in a recent interview. "I certainly promised that I'd carry on the family business."
It has been a hard dream to realize. Before his father passed away 16 years ago, it was his hope his son would be appointed to succeed him, but then-Gov. John Waihee chose to appoint Daniel Akaka instead. In 2003, Matsunaga came in second to U.S. Rep. Ed Case in a special election to fill the 2nd Congressional seat.
As the son of a senator, Matsunaga said he was privy to his father's accounts of how to get things done in Congress. He is familiar with the U.S. Capitol and, in fact, his first job was as a congressional page. He has also maintained contacts on the East Coast, where he lived for 22 years.
"Numerous friends of the Matsunaga family in Washington would certainly lend a hand to assist," he said.
It's not all about legacy, though.
While Matsunaga said he shares some of his father's passions — such as peace, veteran's rights and a deep-seated desire to serve the community — he also has other priorities.
His father was motivated to run for Congress out of a desire to fight inequalities and racial prejudice, but Matsunaga said his generation is able to enjoy the fruits of that labor and concentrate on more current issues: global warming, struggles of working families and peace on the global level, as well as within individual families.
"These are the issues that help define me," he said.
His friend and former state Legislature colleague, Sen. Les Ihara, said Matsunaga is well-suited for Congress, with the intelligence and temperament to do the job. "He can analyze issues and subjects. He's quite smart and he's thoughtful. He does his homework. He doesn't flinch from the tough issues," he said.
He said Matsunaga has been guided by values, rather than personal interest, and is able to work with others even if they disagreed with him.
"Wherever people stood, he understood their views," Ihara said.
During his 10 years in office, Matsunaga said he led the push to deregulate the telecom industry, making more choices and better prices available for mobile phone users.
After voters gave a thumbs-down to same-sex marriage, Matsunaga helped pass a package of 60 rights and benefits for "reciprocal beneficiaries," couples who can't legally marry.
Organizations such as the Mental Health Association of Hawai'i, the Domestic Violence Clearinghouse and Legal Hotline and Mothers Against Drunk Driving have given him accolades for his work as a legislator.
State Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, who also served with Matsunaga, said he dealt with issues fairly when he was co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
"Matt is very progressive and open to new ideas and has a real strength in the environmental area," she said. "He has a lot of energy."
Reach Treena Shapiro at email@example.com.