It’s 8:07 p.m. on Election Day—that is, the polls have been closed for seven minutes—and I am drinking tea at Sipology, the downtown Long Beach coffeehouse & gallery that has served as sort of a headquarters throughout the latest Peter Mathews for Congress Campaign. Earlier in the day, Mathews invited me here for the victory party.

Three people are at the table next to me: a middle-aged woman who has decorated her laptop with cut-out pictures of kittens; a restless, clean-cut young man–I would put him at 19—who is obviously participating in his first campaign; and his mother, who has come along to provide moral support.

The woman with the kitties on her computer finds the LA County Registrar’s website, scrolls to the early returns for the 37th District race, and asks the others, “Who’s Laura Richardson?”

The mother blinks. “Well, that’s the person he’s running against.”

“Oh, man,” says the woman. “She’s got over 5,000 votes.”

Mother: “What does Mathews have?”

Woman: “Fifteen hundred.”

“What!?” the son interjects.

“Says it right there,” the woman continues. Fifteen hundred.”

“Wait,” says the son, alarmed. “Are those last year’s numbers?”

“No, I just hit ‘refresh.’  Those are the new numbers,” the woman answers. She looks up at the doorway to the gallery–the campaign war room, essentially–then sighs.  “I’m not saying anything to anybody.”

Everyone looks glum for a moment, but then the woman with the computer leans into the screen. “Well it’s early, though, right? It says only 10 percent reporting. There’s still time.”

The son stands. “Somebody’s got to tell Brent.”  He leaves. Brent, an insurance adjuster who has no official title but has come to assume a fair amount of responsibility—and obvious respect from the volunteers—over the past few years of working with Mathews comes to the table, studies the screen, then walks back to the gallery.  Standing in the doorway, he puts his hands in his pockets and pauses to look at the troops. “OK, guys…” we hear him say, and he steps into the room and out of earshot.

 The conversation at the table continues, but more like a self-help seminar—full of positive affirmations: “The precincts that are reporting are always really strong for Richardson.”  “Those are just the absentee ballots. We knew those weren’t going to be that great.” “Ten percent’s nothing. Wait until we get to fifty. Then we’ll know something.”

The son returns to the table, looking almost ill with anxiety.  “They’re getting really stressed in there,” he says, indicating the gallery.  His mother puts her hand on his arm.  “There’s still time,” she says. 

TIME PASSES—exactly 3 hours and 14 minutes of it. The party ends at 10, when Sipology closes, but Mathews had left long before that, to monitor vote-counting in Norwalk. I’ve come  home, where I’m checking the results on my own, kitty-less computer. At 11:21 p.m., as Election Day approaches the morning, there’s been no change in the math: Richardson has a little over 11,000 votes, while Mathews has received just under 3,200.

I give Mathews a call on his cell to discuss the overwhelming rejection he’s receiving from voters. But he answers in an upbeat voice, and he proceeds to helpfully—cheerfully—point out that there is no way to know which precincts are reporting: it’s entirely possible that all those Richardson votes are coming from Compton, say, instead of Long Beach, where he enjoys most of his support.

We will just have to wait and see. He will have a statement when the numbers are in. The contest is not yet over.

“How are you feeling?” I ask.

And suddenly there is a chink in Mathews armor: for the briefest of moments, he sounds dismayed by the returns—and truly aggravated by my question.

“Well,” he says curtly, “clearly I’d feel a whole lot better if those numbers were reversed.”

Once again, Peter Mathews is losing an election—and once again, Peter Mathews does not want to admit it.

MATHEWS’ FIRST BID for public office was in 1978, and he has thrown his hat into the congressional race every two years—without fail, yet also without victory—since 1992.

From the beginning, he has eschewed corporate contributions, instead funding his never-ending campaign with individual donations and his own salary as a professor of political science at Cypress College. Rather than a paid political staff Mathews has relied on a small army of volunteers: former students, seniors, part-time community activists and first-time voters who have stood on the porches and rung the bells of tens of thousands of homes for every election.

This year, when the campaign budget was exhausted by a single glossy mailer sent to only the most dependable voters, campaign workers simply made black-and-white double-sided copies of that mailer at Kinko’s and doggedly took the grainy leaflets door to door.

That flier is the campaign in a nutshell. Of course, it is afflicted with the same bland boilerplate that clutters the literature of every candidate (“Integrity. Community. Vision.”)  Beyond that, there is an odd mix of the hopelessly ambitious and general (Mathews is fighting for more jobs, better pay, free education, health care for all, a clean environment, strong Social Security, an end to the war, full equality for women, the eradication of discrimination, the elimination of the federal debt and the recovery of Congress from corporate lobbyists). But there is also the bizarrely specific (Mathews proudly announces the endorsement of a “recent mayor of Compton,” the CEO of a Hollywood talent agency, and the Gardena Valley Democratic Club, and touts that he is a member of the Screen Actors Guild).

But the meat of the campaign is on the backside of the flier, where there is a collage of 11 negative articles about the 37th congressional district’s incumbent representative, Laura Richardson—a collection of unflattering photos and headline snippets reading “Ethics Inquiry,” “defaults,” “investigated,” “mess” and “subpoenaed.” This has been the best hope of the Mathews campaign: to ride the wave of anti-incumbent, anti-establishment fever that is said to be sweeping the nation.

Richardson would seem to have been a good target. Among other things, she has defaulted on multiple mortgages, failed to include numerous loans in her financial disclosure forms, fallen behind in her legal fees, and billed the federal government for an unseemly $1,300 a month to cover a lease on a Lincoln Town Car. Her re-election effort exuded the listlessness of complete confidence. But Mathews was little more than a speed bump…again.

After all these campaigns, Mathews and his supporters have gotten pretty good at misinterpreting the obvious. Press secretary Brett Covey has been one of Mathews’ most-loyal lieutenants for six years and three elections, and he took a familiar position while absorbing the all-too-familiar early returns Tuesday night—sitting at a desktop computer next to a sagging file box of old fliers, all of it crammed into an alcove of Sipology’s gallery. Every 20 seconds or so he would refresh the screen and handicap the percentages—Mathews 16 percent, Richardson 65 percent—that never seemed to get any better … although Covey never seemed to stop thinking of ways they could.

“These numbers could change, because traditionally Peter doesn’t do well on the absentees,” Covey said. “He does much better in the other.”

The consolatory weighing of contingencies against expectations is a constant theme of the Mathews campaign: the numbers don’t look good, but we’ve only seen absentees.  The percentages are depressing, but we aren’t getting the Long Beach numbers yet.

And then there is the win-some, lose-some hard lessons of big-time politics: Mathews mailers that had been destined for whole swaths of Long Beach have gone missing—Mathews himself didn’t receive his own campaign flier—prompting Mathews to initiate an investigation with the Postmaster General.  And there aren’t enough Mathews volunteers to monitor the ballots at more than a handful of precincts, so the campaign has had to guess which stations would be most likely to be hit with voter fraud and dispatch workers accordingly.

It was true—despite the many unhappy returns, Peter Mathews could still win.

“But still,” Covey acknowledged, “it’s kind of an ominous sign.”

 I ask Covey if he and Mathews have discussed the next step would be in the event of a loss.

 “We have talked about it.  We’ve imagined ourselves going different ways and whatnot,” he says. “But it really all depends on the election results and peoples’ attitude afterwards, and I think that it would be nice to sit back and lick our wounds.  We’ll be licking our wounds even if we win, because we’ve taken … well, you know, it’s been quite a haul.”

 Will Peter Mathews run for Congress again in 2012? 

“I would say it’s unlikely,” Covey replies. “This is probably our best chance. If the voters choose [Richardson], especially at an overwhelming margin, it’s a very telling thing. It’s telling us that it may be impossible to beat an incumbent, especially for a person that doesn’t take corporate money. It may just be impossible. And that’s a very sad thing.

“But it also makes me kind of angry, and it just makes me want to go work for the Clean Elections Campaign.”

But Covey’s years of volunteerism have not been paying the bills.

“I have to do something that brings in some money—I’ve been doing this for six years without pay,” he points out. “It takes its toll on you.”

Covey looks at the time.  “You know, we’re about to get kicked out of here in a few minutes.  They close at 10:00.”

 I spend the rest of the night and all the next day trying to contact Mathews, hoping to ask him whether this is the finally the end of his campaign for Congress—or simply the kickoff of his next one.

He does not answer his phone.

  1. howardx
    June 9, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    probably time to give it up, richardson was eminently beatable. the “lost” campaign mailers story sounds a little fishy to these ears.

  2. Joe Mack
    June 9, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    I think it’s fine Peter keep trying. It is a really cool job!
    And, he is my colleague on the Sonny Bozeman Show.
    Though, truth in advertising, my guy’s Nick Dibs.

  3. lbcitygirl
    June 9, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    I hope this means he’ll stop parking that eyesore of a people mover that’s he’s covered in half-assed “detailing” extolling his virtues in the most inconvenient places in town.
    The worst was when he was parking it on Belfflower right at where it bottlenecks near the YMCA. and the second place *really bad spot,* that was creating a major traffic hazard on 7th near Park.

    Good riddance!

  4. June 9, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    I loved this story! Its just so sad and sweet and funny. Good work, Rachel.

  5. June 10, 2010 at 9:34 am

    RAchel, time to put your incredible talent as a writer to work with a fact-based fiction novel about the Eternal Candidate. Or a film. Maybe you could get the Mathewsmobile to get in and promise its owner royalties to go toward the next campaign. Plenty of material.

    • Ankur
      July 13, 2011 at 11:07 pm

      There are perennial candidates all over the place… I got three to add to your documentary (Armineh Chelebian, Mike Reed, Jack Lindblad).

  6. bertrandrusselfan
    June 10, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Yes, Rachel, I loved your prose too-sweet and bitter.

    I do wish people would stop criticizing people’s looks, truck, i.e. ANYTHING except their Ideas!

    It shows a lazy mind, but, then what else is new?


    • lbcitygirl
      June 11, 2010 at 1:28 am

      The reason why I did not criticize Mr. Matthews ideas, is because, in general, I do not find fault with them.
      But I gotta tell you I have been hating that damn eyesore/traffic hazard for the better part of a year. I hate coming upon that thing, and it is ALWAYS at the worst times. It is actually DANGEROUS where he parks the it!
      And I bet I am not the only person who feels that way.
      Not only that, but I couldn’t find any fault at all with the wonderful writing…so I didn’t criticize it.
      But I really HATE that damn eyesore.

  7. Joe Mack
    June 13, 2010 at 1:09 pm



    Do you have a crush on me, lbcitygirl, or , has the salutation all the sincerity of, “Have a Nice day?”


    • sumbodiswatchingewe
      June 24, 2010 at 5:03 pm

      I thought she had a crush on HowardX… she called him Mandingo a couple of weeks ago. 😉

  8. Ankur
    July 13, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    Peter Mathews should focus on the Oil Extraction Tax.

    It has a real chance if it got some organization. Any spokespeople for the “Tax on California Oil. Revenue to Education. Initiative Statute.” ??

  1. June 22, 2010 at 10:02 pm

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