Fourth in a series of profiles of candidates for the Democratic nomination in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District.
Kathy Cunningham was 22 and fresh out of Stanford in 1975 when she applied for a job with Mel Elfin, Newsweek’s famously acidic Washington bureau chief. It didn’t go well.
“He very undiplomatically told me that I didn’t belong in his office and that I should go out and cut my teeth in a small market,” said the woman now known as Kathleen Matthews. She stayed to become a reporter and anchor for WJLA (Channel 7) and later an executive with Marriott International.
Forty-one years later, as a first-time candidate running for Maryland’s 8th Congressional District nomination, the Democrat says she is hearing a similar message from some voters.
“I don’t think there’s a cookie-cutter résumé that qualifies you for Congress,” she told Frederick County Democrats last month.
In a district where 60 percent of the most frequent Democratic primary voters are women, Matthews, 62, has built her campaign around gender and family issues. Pay equity, paid family leave, affordable child care and protection of abortion rights all figure prominently in her message, as does a vow to curb gun violence. She reminds female voters that women make up just 20 percent of Congress.
Matthews is polished and poised from her years in front of the camera and traveling the globe for Marriott. She has tried to use her prominence in local news to connect with voters on two levels: as a working mother who dashed home to make dinner and help with homework between the 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts, and as a journalist whose assignments afforded her firsthand knowledge of their problems.
“I’ve been in your communities for years, covering your schools, covering crime,” she said in Frederick.
The identity Matthews would like to shed is that of a Washington insider. She and her husband, MSNBC “Hardball” host Chris Matthews, occupy the top tier of the city’s journo-politico establishment. Although the campaign has preferred to highlight its small-dollar donations, her finance reports are stuffed with big contributions from current and former Democratic members of Congress, former White House officials and corporate political action committees.
Despite suggestions from one of her opponents that she has traded on her husband’s celebrity to raise money, he has mostly kept his distance from the campaign, per ground rules worked out with MSNBC.
One exception was at a Labor Day block party in the couple’s Chevy Chase Village neighborhood, when the voluble pundit, invited to the microphone by his wife, touted her political bona fides.
“She really is a progressive liberal, much more than I am, actually,” he said, according to a video of the event posted on YouTube. “I’m politically incorrect at home. She’s never politically incorrect, ever.”
During nearly a decade as Marriott’s executive vice president and chief global communications and public affairs officer, Kathleen Matthews oversaw a PAC that contributed $1.4 million to House and Senate candidates.
Prior to her watch, contributions skewed Republican. Under Matthews, the partisan split was close to even, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Matthews grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, where her father was personnel manager for a biotech firm and her mother a kindergarten teacher who stayed home after her children were born. After Elfin sent her packing, Matthews landed a job as a production assistant for WJLA.
Her break came the afternoon of Jan. 13, 1982, when Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street bridge in a heavy snowstorm, killing 78 passengers, crew members and motorists.
Four months pregnant with her first of three children, Matthews, then working as a producer, was nearby on Rock Creek Parkway en route to another assignment. She headed for the scene and began reporting. By the weekend, she was on camera, updating viewers on the recovery operation.
In 1991, she began a 15-year run as an anchor.
She accepted the job with Marriott in 2006 and describes herself as a change agent for the company, having an impact far beyond public relations.
The hotel giant was already in the middle of a 10-year plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Matthews led the creation of an internal “Green Council” to expand those efforts, which included partnering with the Brazilian state of Amazona to protect 1.4 million acres of rain forest.
Glenn Prickett, a former official with Conservation International, which collaborated with Marriott on several projects, said the environment “had been on the radar screen but not at that level of leadership in the company” before Matthews arrived.
Matthews said she also helped the company, which began offering a domestic partners benefit for employees in 1999, become more hospitable to LGBT employees — urging, for example, that it join a friend-of-the-court brief in last year’s Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage.
“Opponents like to imply she was not a real executive,” said Marriott chief executive Arne Sorenson. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Next: Will Jawando.
Read profiles of other 8th District candidates: