DISGRUNTLED CITIZENS COME WITH the territory for Karen Mathews, the clerk-recorder of Stanislaus County, Calif. Still, nothing had prepared her for the hatred she faced in the garage of her Modesto home two years ago. Mathews, 47, who is single, was stepping out of her car one evening when a heavyset stranger shouting antigovernment rhetoric lunged from the shadows and knocked her to the ground. "Bitch!" screamed the man, kicking her, slashing her neck with a knife, then drawing a pistol. He pulled the trigger—several times, as he laughed—but nothing happened. Fortunately the gun wasn't loaded. "The thought of dying...is something I'll never forget," says Mathews, who was badly cut and bruised but not seriously injured. "I thought, 'This is going to be it.' "

Mathews' beating was one of the first in an ominous trend that began after the 1993 assault by federal agents on the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas. Low-and mid-level government workers in primarily Western states are reporting increased incidences of harassment—sometimes violent—by angry militants who challenge the government's authority to impose laws, conduct court trials and levy taxes. In Colorado, nearly a dozen antigovernment extremists have been charged with intimidating public officials, while in Jordan, Mont., 17 of the armed Freemen who took control of a ranch now surrounded by federal agents have been indicted for crimes including threatening local bureaucrats. As a result, since 1994 legislators in both California and Montana have made intimidating public officials a state crime.

But Karen Mathews is still living in fear. Last summer federal agents investigating her assault arrested nine suspects, several of them members of the right-wing antigovernment group Juris Christian Assembly, on conspiracy charges. (Pretrial motions are to begin July 22.) Since all but three of the nine have been released on bail, Mathews now faces the prospect of seeing them at work and on the street; as an elected official, her address is a matter of public record. "The victim gets lost in the process," she says. Yet if terrorists thought the shy, soft-spoken bureaucrat would be frightened into leaving her job, they were wrong.

Before the attack, Mathews was somewhat of a loner—"a homebody," she admits. Raised in the small town of Linden, 60 miles east of San Francisco, she played piano at the Christian Brethren church her family attended and fed the chickens, horses and purebred rottweilers kept by her parents. She landed her first job, as a secretary, only after the 1980 breakup of her 14-year marriage to high school sweetheart David Mathews, with whom she has two children: Michael, 27, a student in Fremont, Calif., and Scott, 25, an agricultural worker.

For those close to her, Mathews' determination to start a career was a sign of the toughness she would later display. "She expected to be taking care of her kids [and] husband, doing the traditional things a woman does," says Mathews' sister P.J. Jamison, 44. But after the divorce, says Jamison, "she found inner strength she didn't know was there." By 1990, Mathews had worked her way up to assistant registrar of voters for the county. When her boss, the county clerk, retired, Mathews ran for the office and won with 80 percent of the vote.

That's when the trouble started. Mathews noticed that a handful of tax protesters were trying to register bogus liens and deeds as a way of harassing government employees, especially IRS workers. When she and her staff of 34 refused to cooperate, some of the protesters became belligerent, pulling out tape recorders and demanding the employees' names and addresses. Over the years their tactics grew violent. On Christmas 1993 an anonymous caller warned Mathews to "begin doing your job, or something could happen to you on the way to work." Soon afterward someone placed a fake bomb beneath her parked car. Bullets shattered her office window. Finally, on Jan. 29, 1994, she was attacked in her garage.

"This has been the hardest time in my life," says Mathews, who reported back to work 48 hours after the attack and has remained on the job ever since. Determined not to become a victim, she now holds an orange belt in aikido and carries a Smith & Wesson .38-cal. revolver. And she hopes the forthcoming trial will send a message to all extremists. "There's a bigger picture here," she says. "The voters put me in office, and they're the only ones to remove me." If she were to allow herself to be driven from office, she asks simply, "Who would be next? Where would it stop?"

PATRICK ROGERS
LAIRD HARRISON in Modesto

  • Contributors:
  • Laird Harrison.