In what is sure to trigger a seismic shift of Bay Area politics, 14-term Congressman Tom Lantos, 79, made the shocking announcement this week that he will not seek re-election in November because he has been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus.
Until this surprising news, Lantos had expressed every intention of continuing in office well into the future. His energy level remained impressive and he took pride in swimming an hour each day in the congressional pool. Even now, Lantos expects to serve effectively throughout the remaining year of his term despite the near-certainty that he will undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment, if not surgery.
The only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress, Lantos has led a one-of-a-kind life. After 30 years as a San Francisco State University economics professor, he narrowly won the 12th District seat for the first time in 1980 and has represented southwest San Francisco and north/central San Mateo County ever since. As his power grew along with seniority, Lantos became a key mover in obtaining hotly contested federal funding for the Bay Area’s most ambitious projects.
It is indisputable that without Lantos, this region would have far punier and belated versions of what emerged as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Presidio, Caltrain, BART to the airport and the Devil’s Slide bypass tunnel. Yet despite his extraordinary impact on the local scene, Lantos showed special relish for helping shape world events as ranking Democrat of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs — finally rising to the chairmanship after his party’s 2006 congressional sweep.
As only a refugee from dictatorship could be, Lantos was an unabashed patriot. His retirement announcement summed it up, “It is only in the United States that a penniless survivor of the Holocaust and a fighter in the anti-Nazi underground could have received an education, raised a family, and had the privilege of serving the last three decades of his life as a member of Congress. I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country.”
Lantos founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1983 and at the same time was an energetic supporter of U.S. military assertiveness throughout the Cold War and after. He wanted America standing strong against injustice and oppression.
Undeniably, his early support of the Iraq war made him a controversial — even suspect — figure to some in the 12th District during recent years. But Lantos was never afraid to change his mind and he steadily became an outspoken critic of the unpopular war.
After hailing the immense local and international contributions of
Rep. Tom Lantos, all that’s left is to wish him the very best of luck in fighting off this disease. We hope he continues living a long life with his wife, Annette, two daughters, 17 grandchildren and inseparable dog, Macko. If anyone can beat cancer, it is this lifelong scrapper who escaped a Nazi concentration camp as a teen and never stopped fighting for freedom.