WASHINGTON – Utah Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson (search) doesn’t dance around the subject of gay marriage. When asked whether he agrees with it, he answers unequivocally: no.
“It’s always been my position,” he told Foxnews.com. “I think my position is consistent with a large part of the population of the country.”
But unlike many members of his party who have yet to proclaim a firm position on the controversial issue, Matheson, who was first elected in 2000, says he is ready to support a constitutional amendment (search) that would define marriage as between a man and a woman.
The recent ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that nothing less than full marriage rights would be acceptable under the constitution in that state has prompted lawmakers there to amend the constitution to bar such marriages. Utah already has its own Defense of Marriage Act (search).
Federal lawmakers say amending the U.S. Constitution (search) would be the only way to fend off a likely U.S. Supreme Court challenging all states to eventually recognize homosexual unions. One proposal would be based on the 1996 Federal Marriage Act (search), which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and assures that states that do not want to legalize gay marriage or civil unions do not have to recognize the marriage of couples from other states where it is legal.
“I think the action by the Massachusetts Supreme Court has called into question the full faith and credit clause (search),” Matheson said, referring to Article Four of the U.S Constitution, which requires each state to recognize as legally binding the "public Acts, Records and judicial Proceedings" of other states.
“Preferably, marriage would be seen as something recognized by the state,” said Matheson, “but this issue goes beyond that, to what is or what isn’t recognized by another state.”
Matheson, who worked 15 years in the energy industry before coming to Washington, represents the 2nd Congressional District, which spans about 50,000 square miles of Utah, beginning in the eastern part of Salt Lake County and stretching east and southward down to the Arizona border.
It includes all five of Utah’s national parks, tribal reservations, snow-peaked mountains and red-rocked rural terrain depicted in Hollywood movies and cowboy poetry. Two-thirds of the district’s 750,000 people live in Salt Lake County, and a high percentage belong to the conservative Mormon faith.
Though Matheson is a Democrat — and the only one in the Utah congressional delegation — he serves a district that became much more Republican during the redistricting that took place after his election in 2000. This makes him a prime target by the GOP as it prepares its list of vulnerable House incumbents in 2004.
“I went to Washington last August and met with some folks and it was certainly the message they gave me — that they feel they can beat Matheson,” said Republican David Wilde (search), a Salt Lake County councilman who is running to challenge the congressman in November.
“He’s been good about walking the line as a Democrat, but he tends to vote Republican,” added Wilde, who said Utah residents deserve a representative who feels the same way about the issues, not just votes on what is politically expedient.
Matheson has indeed voted Republican on key issues like supporting President Bush’s tax cuts, banning partial-birth abortion (search) and the war in Iraq. He is a member of the Blue Dog Democrats (search), a coalition of conservative Democrats on Capitol Hill.
"Jim Matheson has been a strong voice in Congress for fiscal responsibility," Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., Blue Dog Co-Chair for Communications, told Foxnews.com. "Jim plays a leading role in our efforts to return Washington to a path of deficit reduction and balanced budgets."
Matheson said that while he agrees with the president much of the time on fiscal policy, he has voiced opposition to plans for continued nuclear testing in Utah. He is also working to ensure the military be given adequate resources — like body armor — for postwar Iraq.
“I think there were some in the Pentagon who underestimated our need,” he said. “Winning the war was not the difficult part, it is winning the peace that is the challenge.”
Matheson’s conservative voting record certainly hasn’t angered Democrats in his state.
“He’s done a great job in representing Utah and his district and I think he’s been a good Democrat as well,” said Donald Dunn, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party.
Two other Republicans will be vying for the opportunity to challenge Matheson, including Jim Swallow (search), who lost to the congressman in 2002 by 2,000 votes. Businessman and big Bush fund-raiser Tim Bridgewater (search) is also in the race. A nominee will be chosen from this pack during the May 8 convention. If none get at least 60 percent of the delegates, the top two compete in a run-off primary in June.
Swallow said Matheson may look like he’s cast all the conservative votes on key issues, but he can point out several incidences where he worked with Democrats against the tax cuts leading up to the final votes, and has consistently voted for the Democratic leadership.
“When push comes to shove, on issues that matter to Utah, he’s against us, not with us,” said Swallow. “I’ve watched how he votes. He talks conservative in Utah but he votes with Democrats 75 percent of the time.”
Mike Clement, a spokesman for Bridgewater, said Matheson hasn’t done enough to get the federal government off the back of small business. He said Bridgewater is willing to wage a tough primary to get the chance to beat Matheson in November.
“We feel the delegates want a new face,” he said, referring to Swallow’s loss in 2002. “They want someone who can win.”
For his part, Matheson said he is looking forward to the challenges ahead, noting he has worked hard to reach out to all of his new post-redistricting constituents.
“They like someone who works hard, listens to them, and makes progress,” he said. “I welcome the next election.”