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(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.
Matheson’s gig as lobbyist changed path of his life, career

Politics » The son of a governor wanted to make his own path — not following family tradition into law.

First Published Oct 08 2012 08:12 am • Last Updated Jan 14 2013 11:31 pm

By the time Jim Matheson was a senior at Harvard, he had written all kinds of essays, but this one was different. He had to explain why he wanted to go to law school and when he tried to put pen to paper, he came up empty.

His grandfather was a lawyer, as were his dad and brother, but following the family tradition wasn’t enough.

At a glance

Jim Matheson bio

Age » 52

Family » Wife, Amy Herbener, and their two boys, William and Harris

Education » Harvard, bachelor’s degree, and UCLA, MBA

Birthplace » Salt Lake City

Occupation » Consultant for energy companies

Hobbies » Couples bridge; fantasy football; sports fan

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"I decided I needed to be honest with myself," he said. "If I can’t articulate why I want to do it, then why would I go?"

He didn’t.

After graduation, Matheson instead moved to Washington, D.C., where he became a lobbyist for an environmental group, a period the six-term Democratic congressman almost never speaks of and his campaign doesn’t list in his official bio.

But those three years in the early 1980s changed his life, from the woman he married, to the jobs he held, to the elected office he is campaigning to keep.

As his mother, Norma Matheson, puts it: "I don’t think you can discount his early D.C. experience and the impact it had on subsequent decisions he made."

His own path » Utah voters elected Scott Matheson governor in November 1976 when his son Jim was a junior at East High in Salt Lake City. The younger Matheson was a tight end on the school’s football team and would eventually win a state tennis title in doubles, though he claims partner Joe Rich carried him. As a senior, he served as the president of the school senate. Put simply, he was a big man on campus, and everyone knew he came from one of the state’s most prominent families.

But, in 1978, when he enrolled in his first semester at Harvard, nobody knew who Matheson was; he liked it that way. His eventual roommate, Peter Martin, said it took weeks before their friends discovered the "unassuming" and quiet Westerner was the son of a governor.

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"I didn’t want them to know. I thought they should know me for who I was," Matheson said in a lengthy interview in his Capitol Hill office.

They learned he was a guy who loved sports as much as he loved politics. He earned a degree in government, and, on the side, he called football and basketball games on Harvard’s WHRB, often joking he would pursue a career in sports radio.

Actually, he always assumed he would go to law school until the moment he chose another path than the one laid out for him. It was a decision that didn’t sit well with his father.

"He thought I was crazy, but he’s from a generation where you go to college, you get a job and you move on," Matheson said. "He couldn’t imagine why I didn’t want to move on with that."

He decided to give Washington a try. He had had a small taste of congressional politics the year before when he worked as a summer intern for House Speaker Tip O’Neill. It also didn’t hurt that he had a free place to stay and a father with connections.

Scott Matheson Jr. lived in Arlington, Va., at the time and let his younger brother bunk in the basement, while their dad lined up Jim with lobbyist Joe Browder, who helped create the Environmental Policy Center, where Matheson landed a job.

Opposing sides » Louise Dunlap, Browder’s wife, ran the aggressive lobbying shop populated by young activists. She assigned the 22-year-old Matheson to work on a campaign against the Synthetic Fuels Corp., where he primarily did technical research. It would be another year before he registered as a lobbyist and even then he largely backed up his direct boss, Bob Roach. Matheson made only $61.11 from his lobbying activities in the first six months of reports filed with Congress.

While Matheson was restrained and measured, Roach was aggressive and intense. The two got along well. It helped that they believed in their cause.

Congress created the Synthetic Fuels Corp. after the 1979 energy crisis as the government’s primary attempt to achieve independence from foreign oil.

The corporation was given a $20 billion budget to push new types of domestic fuel sources such as coal gasification and oil shale into the market.

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