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Remembering Georgia Rep. Dawson Mathis

Image: Remembering Georgia Rep. Dawson Mathis
Dawson Mathis in an interview with Bob Short, August 2008. (YouTube)

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Wednesday, 19 Apr 2017 08:43 AM Current | Bio | Archive

When I heard the sad news that former Rep. Dawson Mathis, D-Ga., died on April 17, I immediately recalled my first interview with the former TV newscaster. It 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 strategist.

What I knew about Mathis was that he was a conservative Democrat — pro-life, pro-national defense, and someone who had little regard for 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 and Phil Crane. 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 a San Francisco 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 and Mendel Davis, Mathis “could deliver 50 votes [to Burton] but not always the same 50,” 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 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.

He 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 I understood the way he operated, Mathis saw that 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, Ga., from 1964-1970. Mathis’ handsome looks and FM voice made him a familiar fixture in 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, Ron Dellums, 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, Dawson Mathis 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 chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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John-Gizzi
When I heard the sad news that former Rep. Dawson Mathis, D-Ga., died on April 17, I immediately recalled my first interview with the former TV newscaster. It 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.
Georgia, Dawson Mathis
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Wednesday, 19 Apr 2017 08:43 AM
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