When I heard the sad news that former U.S. Rep. Dawson Mathis (D.-GA) died on April 17, I recalled my first interview with the Peach State lawmaker and former TV newscaster. That was in 1979, when I was a rookie reporter and Mathis was in his fifth term and at the top of his game as a congressional “wheeler-dealer.”
What I knew about Mathis was that he was a conservative Democrat— pro-life, pro-national defense, and someone who had little to do with his fellow Georgian who happened to be President, Jimmy Carter. Dawson regularly met with “New Right” leaders such as Paul Weyrich of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress and Republican Reps. Bob Bauman (MD) and Phil Crane (Ill.). Their goal was to build a winning conservative coalition in the House.
So I was flabbergasted to learn that Mathis was also a close ally of Rep. Phil Burton (D-CA)– San Francisco leftist, redistributionist, and architect of the House “reforms” that deposed conservative Democratic committee chairmen a few years before.
“How can you be with that guy?” I asked Mathis.
“Because he knows how to deal!” the Georgian shot back, drawing on his cigarette and explaining patiently that “we [farm states] are losing votes for subsidies. We need to create new alliances and here you’ve got the San Francisco Democrat making sure our subsidies are preserved. And Phil is one left-wing liberal who keeps his word.”
Along with fellow Southern Democratic Reps. Charlie Rose (NC) and Mendel Davis (SC), Mathis “could deliver fifty votes [to Burton] but not always the same fifty,” according to Burton biographer John Jacobs. (On the most important vote of all, however, Mathis and his friends could not make Burton majority leader; he lost to Jim Wright of Texas by one vote in a 1976 race that is still vividly recalled on Capitol Hill).
This was Dawson Mathis in a nutshell: a true congressional “wheeler dealer” much like the young Lyndon Johnson, who worked with conservatives such as Weyrich and Bauman on some issues and liberals such as Burton on others.
And the gentleman from South Georgia was a real gent: for all the powerful circles he moved in, Mathis took the time to explain it all to a young reporter barely weeks on his beat.
Just to make sure the way he operated, Mathis made sure I got to know his top aide Julian Holland and his former legislative counsel Leighton Lang. Both became invaluable mentors and friends.
After attending South Georgia College, the young Mathis became a radio announcer. He was news director for WALB-TV in Albany, Georgia from 1964-70. Mathis’s movie-star handsome looks and “FM voice” made him a familiar fixture in South Georgia. When Democratic Rep. Maston O’Neil retired in 1970, Mathis, at age 30, took his seat with little difficulty.
Mathis was part of a memorable class in the House that included fellow Democrats. Bella Abzug (NY), Ron Dellums (Cal.) and Ella Grasso, who went on to be Connecticut’s first woman governor.
The young Georgian, who was soon guiding peanut and tobacco subsidies out of the House Agriculture Committee, might well have stayed for decades in the House. But in 1980, he made the first wrong calculation of his career: Mathis challenged veteran Democratic Sen. Herman Talmadge, believing that a financial scandal would cause enough voter revulsion to bring him down. He was right but at the wrong time: Talmadge beat Mathis and two other Democrats in the primary, but lost the general election to Republican Mack Mattingly.
Out of Congress, he remained a symbol of an era when lawmakers of different parties and even different ideologies found common ground on which to work. And, a gentleman to the end, he stayed my friend.
John Gizzi is a writer for Newsmax and a veteran Capitol Hill journalist.