If Mike Matson pulls the trigger on a gubernatorial run and wins, it will be the revenge of the local official on Terry Branstad and Kim Reynolds’ legacy. A member of the Davenport City Council for the past ten years, Matson is fed up with the unfunded mandates coming out of Des Moines, as well as state Republicans’ constant restrictions on local control.
To slingshot from alderman to governor may seem like an impossible task, but Matson’s impressive military background has Democrats in Eastern Iowa promoting him as a serious contender that could reach out to rural and Republican voters. It might set him up to be the dark horse candidate in a crowded field.
A former Army Ranger and retired Army Sergeant Major, Matson spent the mid-1980s jumping out of airplanes into conflict areas in Central America. He later worked in special operations command in Afghanistan and Qatar, holding a top secret security clearance, and now teaches the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp (JROTC) program for the Davenport school district.
Between that teaching role and his city council position, Matson thinks he might be able to provide better leadership than what’s currently coming out of the Statehouse.
“All I see lately is we’re hurting folks and not helping them,” Matson told Starting Line in an interview last week at the Iowa Capitol, where he was meeting with legislators about his potential campaign. “That’s why I want to be the leader of this state, to help us help folks again and work with everybody.”
A Vilsack-Like Upbringing And Joining The Army
Matson’s early life mirrored that in some ways of a previous popular Democratic governor in Iowa. His mother’s family was Catholic, but she was unmarried and pregnant with him. Shunned by their local community in Davenport, she and Matson’s grandfather moved to Iowa City, where Matson was born and put up for adoption. His adoptive parents were from Davenport and brought him right back to Scott County, where he grew up and attended Davenport Assumption High School.
A family friend who joined the Army Rangers and began the parachuting training sparked an interest for Matson that would lead to a career in the military for over 20 years.
“I walked into the recruiting office in Davenport in 1982 and said, ‘I’d like to join the Army and jump out of airplanes,’” Matson said.
And so he did, racking up over 300 jumps during his service in the 2nd/75th Ranger Battalion, the 2nd/187th Airborne Infantry, the 1st/505 Parachute Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division. But getting there wasn’t easy, as Matson worked his way through graduating the Army’s sniper, pathfinder, jumpmaster and air assault schools.
“Ranger school is hard,” he explained. “Our class started with 240 members, and of the original class, I think 40 people graduated. You don’t sleep. You don’t eat. You walk all day with 100 pounds on your back. I was lucky enough to get through it.”
Throughout his career, Matson served three tours at Fort Brag, as well as deployments in Panama, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He was in El Salvador and Honduras during their conflicts. And doing so gave him a unique perspective on how political leadership back home needs to seriously consider military choices.
“I jumped into Honduras three times on the border of Nicaragua, ready to fight,” he recalled. “We were a stabilizing force, I believe, at the time – sometimes you need military force to show, but you better understand the impact. And if you do something, how are you getting out of it? I was in special operations command in Afghanistan when we were thinking about going to Iraq. I watched when I was in Qatar at Al Udeid airbase, we’d land dark airplanes with tanks, take them up to Kuwait, nobody knew. We were invading a country by ourselves.”
In the short time he was back home in Davenport between deployments, Matson met his now-wife Trish while she was attending St. Ambrose University. They’ve since been married 26 years and have four children. Their oldest son joined the military and is serving in Korea and their oldest daughter works for the Head Start program in Davenport. Their youngest children are twins – the son goes to Western Illinois for a business degree; the daughter is at Northern Iowa to become a teacher.
After living around the world, Matson moved the family back to Davenport where he took the JROTC job. He’s also now the commander of the local American Legion post.
A Local Official’s Perspective On State Government
When Matson’s Davenport alderman was unresponsive to his local neighborhood problems, Matson decided to run himself for the job. After defeating four contenders in his first campaign, he’s been unopposed in his runs since.
“I’ve always been interested in service, I’ve always been interested in helping,” he said.
But over the past several years, his job has gotten considerably harder thanks to decisions coming out of the Statehouse. The property tax cuts and landlord policy changes have had a big impact on his city.
“I think part of what I bring to the table in running for governor is the local perspective,” Matson said. “How do the decisions made in this building affect you and me on the ground in whenever we live? Because I’ve seen it many times where the state will make a decision, preempt something, provide no funds … The corporate tax cut, which now falls on the residential. I think it was $10 million that we had to deal with in one year – that’s a big deal for cities.”
Matson doubted Branstad or Reynolds understood the fallout local cities are having from their decisions.
“Are we bankrupting Iowa?” he asked. “It sure looks like we’re hurting Iowans … I understand incentives. We do that at the local level. In Davenport, we do no more than a 60% TIF, tied to new jobs at a decent wage – not you move from here to here. New jobs. If we’re going to incentivize you to come, we still want some money in property taxes, we still want new jobs.”
Most damaging, however, is when the governor upends a process that is already working, like collective bargaining or the state’s Medicaid system.
“We’ll throw a grenade in the room and blow up the whole process that’s worked for a long time,” he said of the public workers’ rights changes.
And on the issue of mental health services, Matson has actually seen success at the local level. A private, for-profit mental healthcare company was thinking of opening shop in Davenport. Matson was skeptical, but Davenport did have a serious problem – they were sending children with mental health issues to other cities.
So he went to Genesis Health System, the regional healthcare operator that runs several public hospitals, and encouraged them to step up and expand their mental health services. They ended up creating a behavioral health unit at one of the hospitals and added 60 mental health beds for children and adults. Now other cities send their kids to Davenport for treatment.
“There’s a precedent in Davenport that I was directly involved in,” Matson said. “I articulated to the city council that we need to support Genesis, and now we have it. I think we can take that and use it in the state if I were governor.”
A Unique, Inclusive Appeal For Democrats
Though he’s only been through one competitive election, were Matson to emerge from the crowded field of Democrats in the gubernatorial primary, he’d become the defacto leader of the party. So what might his campaign look like?
“For Democrats, we need to do a better job of reaching out,” Matson claimed. “We call ourselves the party of inclusion, which I fully believe. But are we? Are we including farmers? Are we including the rural folks? I don’t know if we’ve done a good job of that.”
He believes his military background might help some voters reconsider the Democratic Party. Or at least get them to the point of listening to his pitch, which he’s practiced on his friends for years.
“Mike, you’re a military guy, why the hell are you a Democrat?” Matson said is the question he often gets. “I sit around with my friends as we’re having a beer, some friends I’ve served with. I say, listen, there were two basic concepts beat into your head as a NCO, a non-commissioned officer: complete the mission … What’s the second one? Take care of the solider – or the airman, or the sailor – take care of them and their family. Why is that different here? Who takes care of them back home? Democrats. They look out for poverty-stricken folks, children, the working class. I don’t know that the wealthy needs to be looked out for.”
And his background may help chip away at one of rural voters’ big sticking points with Democrats: guns.
“When you were in the military, if you were caught with a loaded rifle, unsecured, being in a place where it shouldn’t, you would get chewed out,” Matson explained. “Why is it different here? Why is it that many people here – and I support the 2nd Amendment – what is wrong with requiring training? Keep it out of the hands of someone who might use it in a very bad way. Someone with a domestic abuse history, proven conviction. Proven unstable. You damn well wouldn’t allow them in the military to have it. Why is it different here?”
But as an ISEA member, he also believes Democrats can still use one of their traditional strengths – strong support of public education – to win back red counties as well.
“I remember when I was younger, Iowa used to lead the nation in education. It was a bragging thing,” Matson recalled. “I remember going to places when I was in the army. They’d say, ‘Iowa? Idaho? Potatoes?’ And then they’d say, ‘Wait, you’ve got those good schools.’ We used to lead the nation in education … Now you authorize 1.1% allowable growth … That’s an insult.”
“I have family that farms in DeWitt,” he added. “My wife has family that farms in Bernard and Cascade. Are you really going to find a teacher to teach in your school system in your rural area?”
An Uphill Battle In The Primary
Going forward, Matson could occupy a niche in a Democratic primary that all too often goes unfilled: a candidate from Scott County. But he’ll still face difficulties in consolidating that support, with Todd Prichard’s Davenport roots and the likelihood that Nate Boulton could win over Scott County labor organizations. And beyond that corner of Eastern Iowa, he’s not very well-known to either activists or the donor class.
But he’s aware of the challenge.
“I’m new, so I’ve got a big hurdle,” Matson admitted. “Name recognition, funding. We’re building that exploratory look … We’ve got a good, quality group of folks [in the primary]. Democrats are going to have somebody pretty cool to pick from.”
As he begins touring the state to speak to Democratic groups – he’s attending the Buchanan County Democrats fundraiser this weekend – he’ll have that chance to pitch his candidacy as the former Army Ranger that could retake Terrace Hill.
by Pat Rynard