WASHINGTON—Rep. Robert T. Matsui, D-Calif., a World War II internee who rose to become one of the top Asian Americans in Congress during 26 years of service, died late Saturday, his office announced yesterday. He was 63.
One of his party's leading spokesmen on tax and Social Security issues, Matsui was hospitalized at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., on Dec. 24, suffering from pneumonia. His office said he had been diagnosed several months ago with myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare bone marrow disease that compromises the body's ability to fight infection.
He also looked out for the interests of his district and California, using his position on the Ways and Means Committee to push for measures like that sought by the state's wine industry to suspend a century-old federal tax on manufacturers and retailers of alcoholic beverages. He argued that the tax hurt small businesses, including small wineries, and got the measure included in the recently passed corporate tax overhaul.
Although he bucked party orthodoxy with his aggressive support of free trade, he had just completed a two-year stint as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The position made him the first Asian American to serve in the top levels of the House Democratic leadership but left him disappointed because Republicans ended up expanding their majority in the House in the November elections.
"Bob wanted me to express his most profound gratitude to all of those he had the honor to serve and who made his life so extraordinary," his wife, Doris, said in a statement.
A special election is expected to be called to choose a successor. Among those mentioned as possible candidates were state Sen. Deborah Ortiz and former Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, both Democrats from Sacramento.
Matsui was remembered Sunday as a skilled legislator and political strategist.
President Bush said Matsui "served with distinction and integrity" and "was a leader of his party admired by colleagues on both sides of the aisle."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., described him as "one of the greats in public service in California. He was a leader who united, a master of balanced, practical public policy, and a great champion — not only for his district, but for all of California."
Rep. Howard L. Berman, D-Calif., called Matsui "one of the pillars of the House Democratic caucus," and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said Matsui won legislative victories "not by being the loudest but by being the smartest."
Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., of the Ways and Means Committee, called Matsui a champion of protecting Social Security. "We never imagined we would have to go into a major debate on Social Security's future without him," he said.
Tim Ransdell, executive director of the California Institute for Federal Policy Research, a Washington-based group that examines federal issues, said Matsui's death was "a major loss for California."
"He was both intellectually gifted and highly ranked — a key leader on a top committee. He appreciated and skillfully navigated Washington's political complexities, simultaneously pursuing partisan gain and bipartisan goals," Ransdell said. "He was an independent thinker, differing from many in his party on issues, such as trade, yet a sufficiently stalwart Democrat to lead the party's election campaign efforts last year."
John Tateishi, national executive director of the San Francisco-based Japanese American Citizens League, said Matsui "never saw himself as the Japanese American congressman, but as a member of the U.S. Congress who happened to be of Japanese ancestry and someone whose passion for justice was borne out of his own experience."
Born Sept. 17, 1941, in Sacramento, Matsui was 6 months old when, in response to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, he and his family were interned with thousands of other Japanese Americans at the Tule Lake camp in California. Later, as a congressman, he broke into sobs during a House hearing as he described the 3 1/2 years he and his family spent under guard. He co-sponsored a 1988 law that led to the U.S. government paying $1.6 billion in reparations to 82,219 Japanese American internees.
Tateishi said Matsui was like a bulldog, relentlessly pushing the redress legislation and explaining the issue to colleagues.
A graduate of UC Berkeley and the university's Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, Matsui entered public service after several years in private law practice. He was elected to the Sacramento City Council in 1971 and then to Congress in 1978. Among his proudest achievements was helping then-President Clinton win approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.
Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said in a statement that Matsui was "a passionate defender of his ideals, an energetic representative to his constituents, all Americans, and people throughout the world."
Matsui is survived by his wife; his son, Brian; and a granddaughter.
Matsui's family and friends are establishing a charitable fund. Contributions may be sent to the Matsui Foundation for Public Service, P.O. Box 1347, Sacramento, CA 95812.