Matt DeCample, the former longtime spokesman for Governor Mike Beebe, died last night after a nearly three-year battle with a rare form of liver cancer, Talk Business and KATV report. He was 44.
DeCample, originally from the Seattle area, first moved to Little Rock around 20 years ago to work as a television reporter at KATV. His knack for the political beat led Beebe, then the state’s attorney general, to hire him as a spokesman. After four years in the role, DeCample stayed on when Beebe won the governorship, serving for eight years as the governor’s press secretary and communications chief. DeCample was one of Beebe’s most skilled and trusted aides, a deft political operator with a deep knowledge of policy details.
After Beebe’s term ended, DeCample moved to the private sector to work as a consultant in media relations and communications. Among too many projects to count, he was involved in helping to build the state’s budding film industry, serving as a communications director for the Arkansas Cinema Society, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, and the Little Rock Film Festival.
DeCample was also well known for his involvement in the local improv and comedy scene, a longtime passion (DeCample even offered improv training in his role as a strategic consultant).
In May of 2016, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of liver cancer. From a recent profile of DeCample in AY Magazine:
“I got my appointment, and they came in, and it was all very serious voices and faces, and they’re like, ‘You have Stage IV cancer, and it’s very aggressive. …
“I did not do the research,” he says. “A lot of my friends did, and I think my family did and looked at numbers and the odds. It was pretty grim. So my doctors were like, we’re going to throw everything we have at it.”
“Right now, we’re just plowing away at it because this particular type of cancer never completely goes away…yet,” he says. “They’re working on it. You just try to beat it back into remission for as long as you can and get as many years out of it as you can. That’s where we are right now.”
After his diagnosis, DeCample started a moving and entertaining blog to chronicle his battle with cancer, “Mattie D vs. The Evil C.” The blog had the tagline, “Fighting cancer with writing and bad jokes. Also using modern medicine.” Even when things were bleak, he insisted on the sacred value of humor. “Obviously, many conversations in the coming weeks won’t be based in humor,” he wrote in his first blog post after his diagnosis, “but I’ll still find ways to sneak laughs into them.”
That’s how I remember him before he got sick, and it was true in my interactions with him after his diagnosis as well: He was relentlessly optimistic, naturally generous, loved to make people laugh, and he had the ease and rhythm of a born storyteller.
As Beebe’s spokesman, DeCample was a consummate pro: quick, thorough, responsive, and unflappable. I can’t count how many times Beebe would quote this or that point that DeCample had made to him. Then he’d lean in conspiratorially and say, “Matt, you know, he’s pretty smart.”
DeCample played a key role as Beebe’s aide in getting Medicaid expansion passed in Arkansas, and he became an outspoken activist for health care access after his diagnosis. From a post he wrote in July of 2017:
In the part that makes it personal, the House Bill would eliminate current protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions. This group includes far more people than you realize. I’m one of the obvious ones, because of my liver cancer. I will have a pre-existing condition until the day I die.
If enacted, this law would statistically put the day I die closer to today than to the distant future. I could no longer afford the care I will need when my cancer resumes its progression. There may be insurance plans I could buy, but the ratio of coverage to out-of-pocket costs would make those policies useless.
When the House bill passed, four Congressmen from my state stood and voted yes. They voted to significantly increase my risk of death from cancer. I’ve met all four of them and consider two of them more than casual acquaintances. But they stood united and voted that this was in the best interest of their country and the people they represent, including me. Their colleague, Congressman Mo Brooks of Alabama, said that the bill would be “…reducing the cost to those people who lead good lives, they’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy.”
I’m still waiting for Congressman Brooks to tell me what I did to deserve cancer. Never smoked a cigarette, don’t drink much, and work out when I can. Or what Congressman Brooks’, along with his colleagues and friends, did to deserve having a deranged man try to murder them on a softball field in June, requiring some of them to need a lot of expensive and immediate health care.
After this vote, House Republicans joined President Trump on the White House Lawn to celebrate with beer and congratulatory speeches. I’ll always remember the beer, because when you’re going through cancer treatment, you can’t have beer.
It seems fitting that after his diagnosis, DeCample, in his blog and his health care activism, put to use all of the skills that made him so effective in the governor’s office: his humor, his gift for synthesizing complex issues, his talent for connecting to people with narrative, his whip-smart political acumen.
To get a sense of DeCample, peruse through “Mattie D vs. The Evil C,” which is still up. From the very first post:
Here I am at 41, and I have cancer. Always the overachiever, this guy.
It’s in my liver, which I thought I always had a pretty solid relationship with. Didn’t drink too much, didn’t put anything too horrible in my body for it to filter, generally good times. Then it turns against me. Jerk. I still need it, obviously, but… jerk.
The cancer is aggressive and advanced, but also localized and can be fought. I’m an improviser, so I must practice what I teach and say “Yes, and.” Yes, I have cancer. And, now we go to war. Rally the North!
From the Talk Business obit, memories from Bob Steel, the former KATV news director who hired him:
“He was a great reporter. So smart about so many things, especially politics,” Steel said. “He was well read, very intelligent and a good writer. Matt had a terrific sense of humor too and was an improv comic when he wasn’t chasing a news story. He was a pleasure to be around.” …
Steel said DeCample was so good at speaking for Beebe that the newsroom jokingly referred to him as “Governor DeCample.”
“He was a great press aide and we used his soundbites so often that we jokingly called him Governor DeCample. I know Governor Beebe really appreciated him because the Governor thanked me once for hiring Matt and bringing him to Arkansas.”
J.R. Davis, spokesman and communications director for Governor Hutchinson, made the following statement on Twitter:
Matt DeCample was truly one in a million, & he had the unique ability to make you feel the same way about yourself. He was thoughtful, talented, smart, & funny—w/ a smile that always put you at ease. I’ll never forget his kindness or the advice he shared w/ me 4 yrs ago.
— J.R. Davis (@JR__Davis) March 4, 2019
Beebe issued the following statement:
Matt had the rare combination of an incredibly quick mind and a depth of knowledge that was truly astounding. I’ve always said that he was Google before Google.
He was a music aficionado, a movie buff, a world of information. He was a diplomat (with the press corps and everyone else), he was kind to each and every one, extremely witty, and had more friends than anyone I know. And, yet, he was also a private man. After receiving his devastating cancer diagnosis, he never complained, he never stopped moving forward, continuing to perform improv up the very last week of his life.
He was calm and extremely honest and his credibility was unquestioned. We were lucky to have known him. We will not see his like again.