Moments before police arrested Rep. Tom Lantos in a 2006 protest at the Sudanese Embassy, the elder statesman climbed the steps and gazed over the assembled religious leaders, lawmakers and students with an air of command.
They had gathered to condemn the genocide in Darfur. But the words of Lantos held a unique moral authority that riveted the crowd.
“A genocide survivor speaking on the current genocide — it was powerful, you felt it. It was one of those moments you remember,” recalled Alex Meixner, director of policy and government relations for Save Darfur.
A short time later, Lantos was loaded into the back of a paddy wagon with four other Congress members and several activists.
“He was stately, even as he was getting arrested,” Meixner said.
That type of image may be how many people remember him.
Lantos died early Monday morning at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., of complications from esophageal cancer. By his side were his wife, Annette, their two daughters, and many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, his spokeswoman said. Lantos, a Democrat who represented part of San Francisco and San Mateo counties, disclosed last month he had esophageal cancer and would not seek re-election.
Annette Lantos said in a statement that her husband’s life was “defined by courage, optimism and unwavering dedication to his principles and his family.”
Lantos was born to Jewish parents in Budapest, Hungary, and was 16 when Adolf Hitler occupied Hungary in 1944. He survived by escaping twice from a forced labor camp and coming under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who used his official status to save thousands of Hungarian Jews.
Most of Lantos’ family died in the Holocaust and he devoted much of his political career to speaking out against other human rights violations.
“He built the foundation upon which movements like ours can reach Congress,” Meixner said. “Human rights issues didn’t have a natural constituency within Congress because they usually refer to crises taking place outside our borders and across oceans.”
Lantos got his political start as a member of the Millbrae School Board. Current school board member John Lynch, who was hired by Lantos as the school district’s business manager in 1961, remembered him as an energetic San Francisco State University professor bent on improving the local schools his daughters attended.
Special election to be held for Lantos’ replacement
The death of longtime Rep. Tom Lantos will result in a special election to find a replacement to serve out his term, which ends in December.
Sabrina Lockhart, spokeswoman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said the governor is required by state law to issue a proclamation for the special election within 14 days. The election would be held 112 days later.
Candidates from all parties will compete in the special primary election. If one candidate gets more than half the votes, he or she will be elected to the seat. If nobody gets 50 percent of the ballots, top vote-getters in each party will compete in a special general election, Lockhart said. There must be eight weeks between the primary and general elections.
Jackie Speier, who declared her candidacy for Lantos’ seat last month and is seen by political analysts as the leading contender for Congress, did not return calls for comment. Lantos endorsed the former state senator as his successor Jan. 16, lauding her “heart and soul, muscle and grit.” Speier announced her intent to run on Jan. 13.
San Mateo resident Yul Kwon, a former staffer for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who won the million-dollar prize on “Survivor” in 2006, is also considering a congressional bid.
The AP contributed to this report
Born: Budapest, Hungary, Feb. 1, 1928
Family: Wife, Annette; two daughters, Annette and Katrina; 17 grandchildren; two great-grandchildren
Education: Bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in economics from the University of Washington; doctorate in economics from UC Berkeley
Political career: Elected to the House in 1980, took office in 1981. At the time of his death, he was serving his 14th term for California’s 12th Congressional District.
» Founded the bipartisan Congressional Human Rights Caucus
» Chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee
» Led first congressional delegation to Libya in more than 30 years, met with Moammar Gadhafi
» Helped secure $750 million in federal funding for construction of the extension of BART to SFO
» Helped expand the Golden Gate National Recreation Area with the addition of Sweeney Ridge, the 1,300-acre Phleger Estate in Woodside and 1,000 acres in and around Pacifica, including Mori Point
» Helped secure federal funds for the Devil’s Slide tunnel, the State Route 92-U.S. Highway 101 interchange in San Mateo, widening of the San Mateo-Hayward bridge
Sources: AP, www.lantos.house.gov