On his 21st birthday, when most of Devon Mathis’ contemporaries were still in college, working a job or trying to figure out what to do in life, he was an Army National Guard sergeant in Iraq leading a small team searching for roadside bombs.
Looking back, Mathis recalls the National Guard as a Golden State melting pot, a mix of income levels and ethnicities, of soldiers from the Bay Area, Southern California and points in between. In short, it was a mix of people doing an important job who “don’t necessarily see eye to eye on anything.”
Mathis sees a lot of similarities between his time in the military and his new job — Republican state Assembly member from Visalia representing a district centered in Tulare County.
“The National Guard is a big mix of people from all over everywhere,” he says. “I see a lot of that carrying over to the legislative side. It’s different people with different needs. The politics is amazingly the same.”
On this mission, however, Mathis is a private E-1, and quite possibly No. 80 among the state Assembly’s 80 members.
He wasn’t supposed to win. He raised little money and had even fewer endorsements. He’s only raised around $23,000 since winning the election (though he recently had a Sacramento fundraiser). He’s a rookie and a Republican in a Democratic Party-dominated Legislature, meaning it likely will be tough to move his political agenda. He’s been assigned the worst office in the state Capitol. He may be challenged when he seeks re-election next year from one of his fellow Republicans.
All the while, movers and shakers in Sacramento know next to nothing about him.
“All I know about him is he was never expected to win,” says Tony Quinn, a longtime Sacramento-based political analyst and former Republican legislative aide. “I’ve heard nothing about him here.”
That, Mathis says, is just fine with him.
A few months into his first term, he exudes the upbeat attitude of the new kid on the team. The new mission, he says, is to carry the concerns of his constituents to Sacramento and to work on legislation to make their lives better. He’s already introduced 22 bills — though most appear to be languishing. One of those bills is his favorite example of working for his constituents. It’s a proposal to make illegal dumping on private property punishable as a misdemeanor. It is currently an infraction. For those illegally dumping tires on private property, the misdemeanor fines would be doubled.
The idea for the legislation came from a talk with Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, who said it was a problem. It’s a problem, Mathis says, because tax dollars are being used to deal with the illegal dumping. And so, a bill was born.
He brushes off the political realities of Sacramento. Mathis says he’ll work across the aisle with majority Democrats. He’s not even bothered by occupying “The Doghouse” — the state Capitol’s most notorious office. It is usually reserved for legislators who have angered leadership in some way. Valley legislators such as Democrat-turned-independent Juan Arambula and Republican Linda Halderman previously had the digs, both for transgressions against their respective party’s leadership.
“I love it,” Mathis says of the office. “I don’t have to worry about pissing anybody off.”
There’s a rumor that Tulare Republican Connie Conway, the former Assembly Republican leader who Mathis replaced after she was termed out last year, requested the office for Mathis before leaving Sacramento. After all, Conway supported Mathis’ opponent, Rudy Mendoza.
No way, Conway says.
“Absolutely not my call,” she says. “I had nothing to do with it.”
New Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen also says she played no role in Mathis’ office assignment.
“I was as surprised as probably Devon Mathis was when that was announced,” Olsen says.
John Casey, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, who officially makes office assignments, usually in conjunction with the Assembly Rules Committee, says there was “no specific reason Mr. Mathis received the office he did. The simple fact of the matter is that there are exactly 80 member offices and someone has to have that office.”
Still, a political veteran like Quinn says nothing happens in Sacramento without a reason, and in a case like this, it might not bode well for Mathis’ political future. If nothing else, being assigned the office simply because somebody has to have it is a measure of Mathis’ standing in the Assembly. And low standing could translate to low results, and a failure to show results can be prime campaign fodder for political opponents — especially for someone who wasn’t even supposed to win his race.
“That’s the punishment office,” Quinn said. “He’s being punished merely for being elected.”
Mathis says his intention is to serve 12 years in the Assembly — six two-year terms, the maximum allowed under the current term-limits law — and on paper, he would appear safe. After all, the 26th District is about as reliably Republican as they come. But there is a chance that, as an unknown upstart who beat the GOP establishment, Mathis may have to battle members of his own party to keep his job.
A nobody gets elected
This time last year, Mathis was a political afterthought.
Despite running on a shoestring budget, he finished second in a field of seven candidates — four Republicans and three Democrats — in the June primary election. The first-place finisher was Mendoza, the Woodlake mayor who was backed by the entire Republican establishment in the district. Though also a Republican, Mathis had scant money or political backing.
Under the state’s election rules, the top two finishers, regardless of political party, advance to the general election. So, while Mathis advanced as the second-place finisher, it looked like Mendoza in a walk. Mendoza got 40.3% of the primary vote, and Mathis got 20.5%. Mendoza had the money and the endorsements. He also had the résumé. He had owned a business that helped other businesses with regulatory issues and writing policies and procedures, and later served as district director for Rep. Devin Nunes, a Tulare Republican.
Something happened on the way to the general election, however. In one of last November’s biggest upsets, Mathis took out Mendoza. And while it was a close race, it wasn’t a nailbiter.
The head scratching started immediately. How did Mendoza, who raised $279,000 to Mathis’ $22,600 and had widespread Republican support in a Republican-dominated district, lose?
Did Democrats boost Mathis as a protest vote because Mendoza was so strongly identified with Nunes? Did Mendoza’s Hispanic last name hurt him? Mathis himself credited the win after the election with sticking to his message of “putting people over politics” and “phone banking” — telephoning voters who get vote-by-mail ballots and asking for their vote.
Time has not dampened the speculation, but the reality remains — Mathis won, and in December has was sworn in as the new 26th District Assembly member.
A focus on agriculture
Mathis’ committee assignments reflect his background and the fact that his district, which covers much of Tulare County, a chunk of northern Kern County and all of Inyo County, is agriculture dominated. He’s vice chair of the veterans affairs committee and is also on the agriculture, water, parks and wildlife and aging and long-term care committees.
He talks about already working with Democrats. One example is a bill he co-authored with Thousand Oaks Democrat Jacqui Erwin, who is the veterans affairs committee chair, that proposes to increase budgets for community veteran service organizations.
Another example may be the time he stopped by the grand opening of the Tulare County Democratic Party office in January.
The stop was quick, a few minutes at most, but Democrats took notice.
“Conway or Nunes would never show up,” said Tulare County Democratic Party Chairman Ruben Macareno. “We were like ‘Wow, what does this mean?’ We were kind of baffled, but we were happy that our Assembly member was here.”
But don’t think that Mathis is a closet Democrat or, worse, a RINO — Republican In Name Only.
If the talk turns to dams or water or high-speed rail, Mathis sounds like most every other central San Joaquin Valley Republican.
He says he’s already asked other legislators in Sacramento: “How do you look a parent in the eye and tell them ‘Sorry, you can’t bathe your child or flush your toilet because somebody believes the mental stability of a fish is more important than your child’s well-being.’ That’s the reality of it. Are we saying a fish is more important than a child?”
In addition, veterans issues are a priority for Mathis. Four of the 22 bills he has introduced deal with some kind of veterans issue.
Forged from 9/11
Mathis, who comes from a military family, graduated from Reedley High School in 2001 and went straight into the Army National Guard. He was at basic training on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
He has a Purple Heart that he wears wherever he goes. He earned it in April 2008. His unit was south of Baghdad on a route reconnaissance mission. The roadside bomb blew a hole through the engine block of Mathis’ truck.
“I was knocked out for two weeks, kind of in and out, in vertigo for a few months,” he says.
He was evacuated from Iraq to Kuwait, where after recuperating he was assigned to desk work.
“When I got back home I went through a real hard time,” Mathis says. “I was real shaky. I had memory problems. I had PTSD stuff to deal with.”
He went to the Veterans Affairs for cognitive retraining therapy at about the same time he was starting college. He earned a degree in public administration from Fresno State. He’s married and has four children.
“It’s great having Devon in the caucus,” Olsen, the Republican Assembly leader, says. “He’s very passionate. He cares a great deal for the Central Valley. He’s a team player. A strategic thinker. He comes to caucus meetings ready to engage and brings a unique perspective. His experiences as a veteran is good for all veterans, he has lived through what they are living.”
But does he have job security?
Macareno, the Tulare County Democratic Party chair, says Mathis’ support base is some Republicans — though not the GOP establishment — and Democrats and non-partisan voters. As such, Macareno thinks Mathis has rankled Republican leaders in the district.
Conway declined to comment directly on Mathis or if she knew of any moves among the Republican Party to challenge him next year.
“Every elected official answers to the public and you make a decision every day on how you vote, what bills you put out and who you hire to represent you when you’re not there,” she said. “It’s not always as easy as it looks.”
But would Mathis’ fellow Assembly Republicans rally to his defense next year if he was challenged by a fellow Republican?
“I’d say very simply that the members traditionally rally around each other in election bids,” said Amanda Fulkerson, communications director for the Assembly Republican Caucus. “Being part of the caucus is about strength in numbers and access to an amazing group of fellow members to serve as resources.”
Quinn, the long-time analyst, isn’t so sure. The district is 45.6% Republican and 30.9% Democrat, according to the most recent voter-registration statistics. Because it is safely in Republican hands, Quinn says, it is less likely that the GOP would expend scarce resources to support Mathis. The main thing is that the seat is Republican held, and that is almost guaranteed. Quinn says Mathis must impress in Sacramento so that people will work to keep him in office. He also must raise a lot of money. But his most recent campaign finance reports, which cover through the end of last year, show him in debt. He recently held a campaign fundrasier at Morton’s, a downtown Sacramento steakhouse.
It’s still early, and Mathis appears to still be settling into his new role, both politically and from a policy standpoint. But as unclear as the short-term is, the long-term — at least to Mathis — is perfectly clear:
“My plan is to be here for 12 years.”