Marcos Bretón

Boycott or attend? Local congresswoman faces tough choice over Trump’s inauguration

Congresswoman Doris Matsui
Congresswoman Doris Matsui

More than 50 members of Congress plan to boycott Friday’s inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, but Doris Matsui won’t be one of them.


Sacramento’s long-serving Democratic congresswoman had thought about staying away from the ceremony at the Capitol in which Trump will place his hand on a Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution. That thought intensified when Trump lashed out at Rep. John Lewis of Georgia on Twitter last week in response to Lewis calling Trump an “illegitimate president.” Trump answered that provocative comment by tweeting that Lewis was “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”

“That was unbelievable,” Matsui said over coffee on Monday after marching in Sacramento’s parade honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. “To call John Lewis an icon isn’t enough.”

RELATED: California has largest block of lawmakers vowing to boycott Trump inauguration

Lewis rose to prominence in the 1960s as a civil rights leader who shed his own blood in the struggle. During a march in Selma, Ala., state troopers beat Lewis so badly they fractured his skull. But the attack on Lewis and other nonviolent protesters galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.

Lewis often was photographed at the side of MLK, and nearly 50 years after the assassination of King, he is still advocating for political and social equality. So when Trump continued to take shots at Lewis in subsequent tweets – the day after the national MLK holiday – it was seen by many as a new low for a president-elect who seemingly will lash out at anyone: the CIA, the FBI, the pope, President Barack Obama, Muslims, Mexicans, women, the disabled and, yes, a venerated civil rights figure.

Lewis has said he will not attend Trump’s swearing-in ceremony, and as of Tuesday, more than a dozen California Democrats had announced they would join the boycott. #StandWithJohnLewis became a rallying cry on Twitter among some Trump opponents. And some of Matsui’s own constituents called on her to join the boycott.

“I called Representative Matsui’s office to ask her to represent me, as her constituent, and many others by not attending Trump’s inauguration on Friday,” said Kate Washington, a Sacramento-based writer and editor. “I believe prominent Democrats, including Matsui, should stand with their colleague, civil rights hero John Lewis.”

When Matsui returned to Sacramento this week to march in honor of MLK and meet with constituents, she knew she would be asked if she would be attending the inauguration. Until now, skipping a ceremony so steeped in American history had never been a question for Matsui.

Matsui said she is not relishing the moment when Trump succeeds Obama, but ultimately decided it was her duty to witness Friday’s historical event. While it may not please some, her decision to attend – and her reasons behind it – is nuanced in a way that stands in contrast to the hardening sentiments among some Trump opponents.

“I love my country,” Matsui said. “And our country is so important and critical in the world. I thought that my personal feelings about Trump should not prevent me from showing support for our democracy.”

Nevertheless, “many of us are lined up behind John Lewis whether we are going to the inaugural or not,” she said.

Like Lewis, Matsui also comes from a background of struggle and injustice. She was born in an internment camp during World War II, when thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned because the government questioned their loyalty to the U.S. after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Matsui grew up in the shadow of that great mistake authorized by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a president otherwise lauded as one of America’s great leaders. She watched as Japanese Americans of her parents’ generation coped with the shame of internment, one that included the loss of property and wealth that had been earned through hard work. As a young woman, Matsui was part of a generation that had to prove its loyalty to a country that hadn’t been loyal to them.

And she did, becoming educated, marrying Sacramento’s Bob Matsui, who represented Sacramento in Congress and who was one of the leaders in the legislative battle in the 1980s that saw Japanese Americans earn an apology and reparations for internment.

Last year, in a speech at Sacramento State, Matsui warned that Trump’s call for an outright ban of Muslim immigrants to the U.S. seemed similar to the fear and passions that led to internment. She said she worries about attacks on American institutions by Trump, attacks parroted by some of his followers. At various times, Trump has alleged voter fraud when none could be confirmed. He also has maligned intelligence officials and long-established American foreign policy.

“We need our institutions,” she said. “I feel we have to step up now. We can’t take anything for granted.”

In the end, Matsui is attending the inauguration out of a feeling of ownership. Many Japanese Americans in the generation before Matsui fought with distinction in World War II, even as their families were imprisoned back home. In some ways, Matsui’s life and background have been all about reclaiming an American identity that had been torn away by the very government that she represents on Capitol Hill.

If she refused to attend Friday inauguration, then it becomes “Trump’s party, and it’s not a party,” she said. “It’s a serious occasion, the peaceful transference of power. The rest of the world is watching, too. I think it’s important for us to look as unified as we can because we have to look forward.”

“As a member of Congress, it’s my responsibility to hold Trump accountable,” she added. “Whether we go to the inaugural or not, we’re going to be very engaged.”

Tatiana Morfas, a Ukrainian immigrant and local social worker, describes her fears about Donald Trump and why she's traveling across the country to take part in the Women's March on Washington on January 21.

Marcos Breton: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton

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