Q&A With Jim Mathias: Senator Reflects On 25-Year Political Career

Q&A With Jim Mathias: Senator Reflects On 25-Year Political Career

OCEAN CITY — State Senator Jim Mathias’ campaign motto is that he’s always working for you, and he’s most certainly always “on” when he’s in public and on the job — campaigning, speaking, listening, shaking hands and talking to people across the Lower Shore community.

That tenacity has helped him reach a milestone that even he didn’t think was possible at times — 25-years as an elected official.

Mathias has never lost an election, which is a bit remarkable when you look at the fact that he’s a Democrat in a largely Republican region, but less so if you consider how often he’s gone against his party to vote in favor of how he believed people felt here on the shore.

You don’t have to drive very far around the region to see some of Mathias’ marquee political accomplishments, but he steers most conversations and questions to the work he is focused on that lay ahead.

We sat down with Mathias this week in his home in Ocean City to talk about his rise up the political ranks, and to find out if state senator is the last title he wants to hold.

Q: Twenty-five years in any job can be looked at as impressive these days, but certainly, 25 years as an elected official is impressive. So, as you look back, did you ever think when you first got started as a councilman in Ocean City back in 1990, that you would be here and getting ready to go into another session in Annapolis as a state senator in Maryland?

A: I didn’t envision that, but I did envision what was on the work desk at the time. Atlantic General Hospital was on the work desk and I did envision being a part of that team to get that job done. As we migrated some more, before I was the mayor, and the conversation was about tripling expanding our Convention Center. I did envision that with a can-do attitude. I did envision when they talked about the bubble concerning recreation expansion, and I sat down with Rick [Meehan] and I said, “I’ll give you my commitment, let’s do this up at Northside Park.” I did envision that. So, the envisioning as we’ve been going forward is one that has grown, even in the worst economic times. I left here in 2006, and there was a six-month appointment for [Delegate] Bennett Bozman’s passing, and my life has always been a challenge.

There’s four-seat races in the council and there’s three-seat races. I took the three seat race, God Bless Bennett, I wish he was still alive today, but the Speaker called and God Bless Kathy [his late wife], we talked about it, and she said, it’s a six-month appointment, but you got to run. Little did I know the robust economy that I talked about then, that I was going to get up there, and within a year and a half, the bottom was going to drop out of our national and international economy and we were going to have to do a lot of tough things.

But even in the worst of the worst, we were able to bring back the monies for the last three phases of the Route 113 expansion, And then to be there for this last installment, to be on the executive nominations committee in the Maryland Senate where George Washington stood in front of. I didn’t envision it then in 1990, but the immediate need and the vision I could see the same way I still see the vision for tomorrow and the things left to do. The most important vision that I think I have is to be that inspiration.

Q: This district is vast, and it contains a very wide array of diverse constituents. But oftentimes, when you have that vast of constituents, they have a lot of different interests, and sometimes you may have an overlap in the people you are trying to help and fight for. They may have conflicting interests with other people you are trying to help. How do you try and balance all of this when you have a district that looks and exists the way this one does?

A: You broker the dialogue to bring them together and understand that there are divergent needs. What we’ve been able to do is take our commercial fishermen and sit down with the regulators, with the governor, with the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. We just did that this spring when there was an adverse regulation coming down, we got everyone to the table. I’ve been trying very hard to bring the environmental and the agricultural community together. It’s not walking into this room on this day with a supportive group and then the next day walking into an opposing group and doing the same and hoping you can line it up and find the match, it’s bringing them together.

You find that common ground, and that’s what we’ve been able to do, and that’s what I want to continue to do. It certainly can be done if that’s what you want to do.

Q: It’s interesting as I look back over your 25 years in office, you’ve never lost, even though many of the elections were extremely tight. What does it come down to? What do you attribute your success to?

A: Clearly, it’s the one-on-one and it’s the relationships that you’ve built along the way, but I will say, people come up to me and say how much they enjoy the fact that I have always stayed on the high road. We love your commercials and we love knowing you and you know what else, seeing you sing with Mary Lou.

It’s the connection that you have with people, and I vote what’s best for the district in every way. When I go to work, I remember who I go to work for, and I know who I take to work with me, and that’s the people of this district. We have our challenges, but I want to make certain that they feel that connection and it’s real and genuine. This is my fire, this is me. I heard it, I feel it and I live it, and I’m asking and thanking people for allowing me that opportunity because we have more work to do.

Q: During the 2014 election, which was arguably one of the most vitriolic elections you were every apart of, I sat at this table with you and it was apparent that you were still grieving your wife’s death in 2011, and it was apparent that the election was taking a lot out of you. How hard was it to keep up that public image and persona and get the job done?

A: Sure it was challenging. Kathy fought that disease valiantly for 14 years. We were very realistic about it and we knew. You spend 40 years with someone, Kathy was my rock. Now, looking forward, you ask how does it work?

Look at those two chemotherapy parity bills that we helped get passed. Being right there in the trench as a Maryland Senator, as one of 47, when the American Cancer Society came to me and they saw the inequity in the law between the intravenous chemotherapy and the oral chemotherapy and where the research was going with more oral, and they needed to make sure that every citizen in Maryland that was fighting that disease had as much opportunity to beat it as possible. I knew that’s where I had to be.

Q: But, was there any point, especially leading up to the 2014 election where you thought, ‘maybe I don’t want to do this job anymore?’

A: No, because, I have to make sure the best opportunities exist for the next person and that’s what continues to drive me. I have a family that drives me. I have a significant other that drives me and I am in the fight. I know I will be in it as long as I want to be in it, and that’s that. So I remain focused. We have plenty of things to do, and I have pages and pages of things here.

Q: I want to go back a little bit, because as we are talking about your career over time, let’s talk about something you spoke quite often about during your time as councilman and mayor. You were very much against gambling in the area. But now, the casino is open and it is soon going to be expanding to table games. Now that it’s here, how do you see the issue of gambling?

A: I think it’s been a great asset. My predecessors were opposed it. Mayor Harry Kelley and Mayor Fish Powell were both opposed to it. Both of them were mentors to me. We looked at it from this perspective and that perspective and our industrial base [tourism] was opposed to it, and were fearful that gambling as we knew it would come in and greatly discount rooms and meals and the like and that’s what we thrive on here. So we had a natural opposition and we worked on it. But, when Mr. Rickman became the owner of the property there, even when we had differences of opinion, we were able to find common ground, and he knew that would agreeably disagree on many things. When the people of Maryland ratified it after then-Gov. O’Malley pushed it to a referendum, we knew it was time to for us to responsibly implement it.

Q: So, do you mark it in the win column for you as a legislator because of the way you helped implement it, even though you disagreed with it?

A: Clearly. I think it’s a learning experience, and it’s about bringing people together. I think it’s a great asset to the area, and like Frank Sinatra once said, the best is yet to come in so many ways.

Q: You often voted against what Gov. Martin O’Malley was pushing for, despite the fact that you are both Democrats. I think gun control, same sex marriage, and a number of other things. Do you find yourself more in line idealistically then with Gov. Larry Hogan’s values?

A: I find myself wholly aligned with the people of our district. That’s where I go to work. Look, the people speak. The people elected Governor O’Malley and then they elected Governor Hogan, and they will elect whoever the next governor may be. That’s the people’s choice, but what I have to make certain is that I know how to work with them. I’m not polar in my positions, and that’s what I have to do to be effective. So when you say, who am I akin to? I’m akin to the needs of the Eastern Shore.

Q: As you look forward, do you have any aspirations of anything higher than the position you hold now? Is governor next, is US Congressman next? What do you want the next chapter to look like for you?

A: I want to continue to be successful in what we do. That’s number one, but sure, I love executive politics. For me to sit here and say that I haven’t thought about running for governor one day, I wouldn’t be being honest with you or myself.

(To listen to more of the entire conversation with Mathias, be sure to check out our online podcast at www.mdcoastdispatch.com/podcasts/)

About The Author: Bryan Russo

Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.