An Underdog Makes His Pitch

Arne Mattsson is one of those underfunded Congressional candidates about whom we hear nothing, save when pundits and other weary experts dismiss them as sacrificial lambs offered up every other year to please the gods of democracy. These candidates play a vital role in modern politics, for without them, we would have to face the unhappy fact that running for office is a rigged game played by insiders.

We laugh at farcical elections in places like Iraq and Cuba, because, after all, here in America we have a vibrant two-party system in which voters have a choice. Yeah, yeah-tell that to the voters in 75 percent (or more) of the nation’s 435 Congressional districts, where the incumbents are big-market teams with George Steinbrenner–like resources and the challengers are the political equivalent of the Montreal Expos or the Kansas City Royals. Oh, they may get a little traction early on, and every now and again some rookie looks impressive-but ultimately, everybody knows the outcome before the contest even begins.

To outsiders, Mr. Mattsson would seem well on his way to the unhappy ending that is the lot of most Congressional challengers. He is running as a Democrat in the Staten Island–Bay Ridge Congressional district, one of those places where the registration numbers suggest that Democrats have a chance, and where reality indicates that they might as well spend extra time at the buffet table in order to prepare for the slaughter to come. The incumbent, Republican Vito Fossella, regularly piles up majorities of more than 60 percent, and is not shy about scooping up the rewards presented to incumbents in safe seats.

So Mr. Mattsson is being outspent. But he is not being out-hustled. Win or lose, Arne Mattsson will finish this election season with dirt on his uniform and the satisfaction of having played his heart out.

Believe me, I’ve seen it before. My first encounter with Mr. Mattsson took place about 35 years ago. He was a punk 10-year-old pitcher for the Knights of Columbus in the South Shore Little League on Staten Island, and I was a 12-year-old All-Star first baseman from the (obviously) hapless Stryker Fuel team. The kid struck me out twice and beat us. He went on to play college ball; I hung up my spikes at age 15. Punk.

Despite Mr. Mattsson’s evident superiority on the ballfield, I’ve stayed in touch with him here and there throughout the years and, frankly, was delighted when I heard the news a few months ago that he was running for Congress. Quite simply, we need more people like Arne Mattsson-in Congress, in town halls, in schools and, yes, on Little League fields. In the last quarter-century, he has been a firefighter, a teacher, a coach and a union delegate. He’s been married for 22 years and has four children who are growing up in the same town, Tottenville on Staten Island, in which he and I grew up.

With his Jesse Ventura–like lack-of-hair style and unvarnished Staten Island accent, Mr. Mattsson is clearly not a product of the cookie-cutter school of political candidates. His evident passion and commitment likewise suggest that his chief political consultant is his own conscience.

We talked a while ago about how he got himself into what I described as “this fine mess.” It was a pretty simple matter, he said: “Two years ago, I saw in the paper that my party didn’t have a candidate for Congress. I didn’t want to see my party embarrassed like that, so I went to a candidates’ interview.” By the time he did, however, the local Democrats had come up with a candidate. Mr. Mattsson quickly deferred, but party leaders wisely recruited him this time around.

It has been an education, if nothing else. Mr. Mattsson tells a story of showing up at one of those dreadful, can’t-pay-them-enough political events sponsored by a minor party whose nomination Mr. Mattsson thought he might snag. After the requisite backslapping and hand-pumping, the party’s chairman told him, matter-of-factly, that the party already had chosen its candidate, and it wasn’t him. What a pleasant business!

The odds and similar disappointments have not deterred him, which comes as no surprise to those who know him. And just as important, those setbacks have not inspired a raft of attention-getting personal attacks on his opponent. Although Mr. Mattsson has profound disagreements with Mr. Fossella, particularly on education, corporate corruption and a host of labor issues, he has kept his remarks to the issues at hand. When the two met for a debate in the offices of the Staten Island Advance , Mr. Mattsson ended the proceedings by pointing to his opponent and saying: “You’re good, but I’m better.”

That sounds like something he said to me from the pitcher’s mound on a summer afternoon in 1968.

An Underdog Makes His Pitch