Longtime Rep. Tom Lantos dies of cancerBy Marisa Lagos
Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress and for 27 years a champion of human rights as representative for a district stretching from San Francisco's west side to San Carlos, died today of complications from esophageal cancer, his office said. He was 80.
The San Mateo Democrat was diagnosed with cancer in December but waited a month before revealing he was ill. He died this morning at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland, a spokeswoman said.
Before he was diagnosed, Lantos was making plans to run in November for his 15th House term. Just last year, he joked he was "in the mid-point of his career," and until recently swam at 5:30 a.m. every day in the House pool.
Lantos was surrounded by his wife, two daughters and many of his 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren when he died, a spokeswoman said.
His wife, Annette, said in a statement that her husband's life was "defined by courage, optimism and unwavering dedication to his principles and to his family."
Lantos put human rights at the top of his agenda throughout his congressional career, and many of the tributes pouring in today cited that commitment.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D, San Francisco, said Lantos made it his life's work to shine "a bright light on the dark corners of oppression," and used his position in Congress to "empower the powerless and give a voice to the voiceless throughout the world."
"Having lived through the worst evil known to mankind, Tom Lantos translated the experience into a lifetime commitment to the fight against anti-Semitism, Holocaust education and a commitment to the state of Israel," Pelosi said.
President Bush called Lantos "a man of character" who was "a living reminder that we must never turn a blind eye to the suffering of the innocent at the hands of evil men."
Lantos lost nearly his whole family in the Holocaust. When he was named chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last year, he told The Chronicle that "in a sense, my whole life has been a preparation for this job."
Lantos was born in Budapest in 1928 and was 16 when the Nazis took the city in March 1944. Most Jews outside the Hungarian capital were sent to Auschwitz, while young Jewish men from Budapest were taken to forced labor camps.
Lantos was taken to a camp at Szob, a village about 40 miles from the capital, from which he escaped twice. The second time he made it to a safe house in Budapest, where his aunt had also taken refuge.
The Red Army liberated Budapest in January 1945, and Lantos began to search for his family. Most had died, but he managed to contact Annette Tillemann, a childhood friend who had gone into hiding shortly after the German occupation and escaped to Switzerland with her mother. Like Lantos, most of her relatives perished in the death camps.
The two were reunited in Hungary later that winter and married in 1950.
Lantos began studying at the University of Budapest in 1946 and received a scholarship in 1947 to study in the United States. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in economics from the University of Washington.
The Lantoses settled in San Mateo County in 1950, and Tom Lantos became an economics professor at San Francisco State. He made his first foray in to politics when he won a seat on the Millbrae school board, then in 1980 defeated GOP incumbent Rep. Bill Royer to win election to the House. Three years later he founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which his wife has directed since.
Among his accomplishments over nearly three decades in Washington were preserving open space in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and bringing millions of federal dollars to extend BART to San Francisco International Airport.
He was criticized in some quarters, however, for an unwavering support of Israel, and he wasn't afraid to be unpopular on a number of issues. As recently as October, he angered the Bush administration and some colleagues when he moved a bill through his committee that defined the killings of Armenians in Turkey in the early 20th century as genocide.
He also made headlines last year when he berated Yahoo Inc. executives during a congressional hearing over their involvement in the jailing of a Chinese journalist. Lantos told the executives, "Morally, you are pygmies."
Lantos' colleagues praised his service today. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, noted that Lantos often marveled that a Holocaust survivor could become a congressional leader.
"Tom Lantos benefited from the limitless opportunity that America affords, but America benefited far more from Tom Lantos' service," Reid said.
Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama praised Lantos as a man who "never wavered in his defense of freedom and opposition to tyranny," noting that Lantos referred to himself as "an American by choice."
Rep. Mike Pence, a socially conservative Indiana Republican, called Lantos "a giant in Congress ... who stood on the world stage with moral clarity and courage."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Connecticut, sent his prayers to Lantos' family, calling the congressman a "dear friend and a genuine statesman."
"Tom Lantos was deeply dedicated to the promotion of freedom and human rights because he intimately knew the horror of tyranny," Lieberman said.
Jewish organizations also issued tributes, as did the Global AIDS Alliance, which worked with Lantos on global poverty issues.
"Tom Lantos was a leader and a friend to all those around the world who fought for democracy and human rights, and no less to the Jewish people and the state of Israel," said World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder. "His hand guided every landmark in our recent history, from the fight against Nazi tyranny during the Holocaust to the championing of Soviet Jewry. His voice was never silent until today."
"Chairman Lantos was an indispensable leader in the field of global AIDS and poverty," added Global AIDS Alliance executive director Paul Zeitz. "The fight against HIV/AIDS has lost a real hero. His leadership will be sorely missed."
It was not immediately clear whether California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would call a special election to replace Lantos. Spokesman Lynn Weil said Lantos' staff, both on committee and in his Bay Area district, will remain in place until the seat is filled.
Last month, Lantos endorsed former state Sen. Jackie Speier to replace him. His district is considered safely Democratic, with registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans 50 percent to 22 percent.
Lantos' endorsement was something of a surprise given that Speier, a former county supervisor, had angered him when word leaked that she was considering challenging him for the seat. But Speier patched things up when Lantos was diagnosed with cancer.
State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, had considered a bid but dropped out Jan. 14.
Lantos is survived by his wife; daughters Annette Tillemann-Dick and Katrina Swett; and 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
Chronicle staff writer Carolyn Lochhead contributed to this report.
Copyright ©2008 San Francisco Chronicle. Published 02/12/2008.