Greasing the Wheels

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Posted October 10, 2007 in News

 Martin Matich must have felt especially proud that autumn day last year in San Bernardino. With his wife, Evelyn, and three of his sons at his side, the retired head of Matich Corp. silently beamed as a host of California’s political elite rose to its collective feet to do him homage.

Among the dignitaries were state assemblymen Bill Emmerson—the Redlands Republican whose efforts made the day’s festivities possible—and Dennis Mountjoy. State senators Russ Bogh, Bob Dutton and Don Perata were also there, as was San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris and the as-of-Wednesday-unindicted U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis. And looming both literally and figuratively above them all was the First Man of California himself, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who blew off an important meeting with black ministers in Sacramento (and pissed off the NAACP in the process) just to be with the old Inland tycoon for his Big Moment.

That Big Moment was the Oct. 17 rechristening of a stretch of Highway 30 between the 215 and 10 freeways, from “13 Miles of Bad Road” to “The Martin A. Matich Highway.” For Matich, who turned 79 in September, getting that chunk of asphalt and concrete named after him had to feel good, better even than watching so many powerful politicians scrape and bow before him. It was Matich, after all, who built Highway 30 some 40 years ago with the sweat of his own brow—or the brows of his company’s designated subcontractors, at least. More than that: Who doesn’t want a genuine piece of public infrastructure named after him while he’s still alive? Who doesn’t want to be able to say, “As a matter of fact, I do own the whole damn road?” and really mean it?

“For the last 50 years, you have been the great builder and the visionary, and then taking your vision and making it turn into reality,” the bodybuilder-turned-governor said to the businessman-turned-thoroughfare at the ceremony. “There are a lot of people that have a vision, but to make that vision turn into reality is a whole other ball game. And you were that kind of a person for more than 50 years, giving California the roads, the airports, the freeways, the highways, the tunnels, the bridges, and the flood control projects, and the list goes on and on and on. What you have done is really extraordinary.”

Were he not so gray from his recent bout with pneumonia, Matich might have blushed under the weight of such praise. But he didn’t have to. Columnist Cassie MacDuff of the Riverside Press-Enterprise newspaper was more than willing to blush for him.

“If it were up to Martin Matich,” she wrote four days after the event, “his name probably wouldn’t be on the freeway his company built through northwest San Bernardino nearly 40 years ago.”

Maybe. But for someone who didn’t want his name on a freeway, he sure paid enough for it.

Martin Matich is a huge financial contributor to Republican candidates and causes. Campaign finance records show that Matich, his family and the company his father founded in 1917 are a virtual ATM for the GOP, fueling the coffers of Republican committees, incumbents and incumbent-wannabes from here to Minnesota. Among the beneficiaries are Emmerson, who took $9,000 from the Matich family in December 2005, introduced the Assembly bill to name part of Highway 30 after Martin Matich in May 2006, and took $6,600 more from the family in July; and Lewis, who has received more than $14,000 from the Matich family since 2001, and who once gave a 530-word speech to the House of Representatives on why it should wish Martin Matich a happy birthday.

Other GOP franchises that have felt the Matich love include the Republican National Committee, Reps. Ken “The Jolly Fox” Calvert and David Dreier, and, of course, the comedy team of Bush-Cheney.

But the biggest Republican recipient of Matich money and influence is Schwarzenegger—so much so that the political watchdog group Common Cause listed Matich Corp. just three spots below Maria Shriver on its list of top contributors to the governor’s 2006 reelection campaign. Since announcing his gubernatorial candidacy in 2003, Schwarzenegger has taken more than $200,000 from the Matich family, not counting at least $50,000 in donations to the governor’s inaugural ball in January, and not counting the funds raised at the fund-raisers Matich held in 2006 on the governor’s behalf.

Neither Matich nor his son and successor to the company throne, Stephen, returned calls for comment. Bob Mulholland, a top campaign advisor to the California Democratic Party, picked up the phone on the first ring.

“It’s outrageous,” he says. “What happened to the days when people adopted highways to clean up? Schwarzenegger has been greasing the wheels of all his big contributors—this is nothing new. What the guy should do is get out there with a broom and clean up the freeways, instead of naming them after donors.”

Schwarzenegger campaign spokeswoman Julie Soderlund, however, doesn’t see things so cynically.

“The governor is not influenced in any way by (Matich’s campaign contributions) and is always influenced by what’s best for the people of California,” she tells the Weekly.

It should be noted that the Matich family has also donated money to Democratic figures, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and congressmen Joe Baca and Jim Oberstar. But it also should be noted that the vast majority of Matich contributions go to GOP politicians; that Feinstein sits on the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation-Housing; that Oberstar chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; and that Baca was a co-sponsor of Emmerson’s “Let’s name Highway 30 after Ol’ Mr. Money-Pants” Assembly bill.

All this begs the question of what, exactly, does the Matich family expect to get in return for their political patronage. If you’re someone as rich and influential as Martin Matich, chances are you expect exactly what you want. And, if you happen to be the son of someone as rich and influential, you probably expect the same thing. Which is why we were anything but surprised when, last year, Schwarzenegger appointed Stephen Matich to the Contractors State License Board. It didn’t hurt that Stephen Matich is a powerful member of the Associated General Contractors of California, which raised more than $3 million to help pass November’s Schwarzenegger-endorsed infrastructure initiatives, propositions 1A-1B.

“You cannot put a limit on the benefits obtained from the combined lobbying efforts of AGC, our local chapter and the individual members,” Stephen opined in an Associated General Contractors article published three months after his appointment to the state board.

Propositions 1A-1B, incidentally, will result in $37 billion in state infrastructure improvements through 2011. According to Caltrans, the improvements include major work on the 15, 60, 71, 91, 210, and 215 freeways in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. This isn’t to say that Stephen Matich was eyeballing those gorgeous contacts when he sent all that money to the governor and state legislators, who’ll ultimately decide who gets the jobs. It’s certainly possible that he was so busy in his dual roles as construction magnate and 2005-2006 member of the Associated General Contractors’ legislative committee, he wasn’t aware billions of dollars in highway projects were coming down the pipeline.

But this still doesn’t answer the question of what Stephen’s father wants in return for his political contributions. Sure, there’s the possibility of a huge financial return on his investments. But Martin Matich is a smart man fast approaching his octogenarian years: He has to know that he can’t take his money with him when he goes. A more likely answer is that Matich wants what most senior citizens want: He wants to be remembered, and the fonder the memories, the better. This is, perhaps, why he’s spending so much time these days on philanthropic causes, such as working to secure a medical school at UCR.

And it’s also why October’s freeway christening had to have meant more to Matich than the praise of powerful politics. For Schwarzenegger and the legislators, it was just business as usual. But for Martin Matich, it was a legacy.


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