Reporting from Sacramento -- Matthew Kipling Fong, a former California state treasurer who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1998, died Wednesday at his home in Pasadena after a long bout with skin cancer. He was 57.
Fong, a Republican, was the scion of a political family with deep roots in state politics. His mother, March Fong Eu, a Democrat, was elected to the state Assembly in 1966 and served as California’s secretary of state from 1975 to 1994. She was later appointed U.S. ambassador to Micronesia by President Clinton.
Fong was born in Alameda on Nov. 20, 1953, and was reared in Oakland by his adopted parents, Eu and Chester Fong.
He was first exposed to politics working on his mother’s campaigns. “When I was growing up, I remember every day after junior high for a couple of years, we rang doorbells,” he said in a 1998 interview. “We walked almost every street in Oakland. We gave out those ugly potholders, and those bottle caps that never fit on any bottle.”
He decided to register as a Republican in 1986, despite his family’s Democratic Party ties. “The toughest part of the transition was telling my mother,” he said. “She thought I was joking.”
Four years later, Fong was encouraged by Pete Wilson, then a U.S. senator who was running for governor, to run for state controller against Democrat Gray Davis. Fong lost that race, but was later appointed to the Board of Equalization by Wilson, making Fong a rising star in state GOP politics.
Wilson remembered Fong on Wednesday as “a man of courage, of great intellect and a wonderful heart. He was a thoroughly decent, good man and one of the more talented public servants that I have been privileged to work with. I will miss him greatly.”
In 1994, Fong again ran for statewide office, capturing the Republican nomination for state treasurer. Boosted by Wilson’s landslide reelection and a national Republican tide, Fong defeated Democrat Phil Angelides, becoming the first Asian American Republican to hold statewide office.
In 1998, Fong bested car alarm magnate Darrell Issa in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, despite being outspent by more than 3 to 1, but lost a general election to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.
“In our Senate race years ago, Matt was a strong competitor and we debated passionately, but we always had respect for one another,” Boxer said in a statement Wednesday.
After leaving elected office, Fong developed an interest in the issue of pensions, serving as a financial consultant and investor. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Fong to the board of a federal agency that helps administer pensions of more than 1.3 million private-sector workers and retirees.
Fong graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1975, and after serving on active duty until 1980 retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve. His love of flying continued after leaving the academy. Fong was a licensed flight instructor and also was licensed to fly gliders.
He earned a master’s degree in business administration at Pepperdine University, where he served on the board of regents until his death, and a law degree at Southwestern University School of Law, now known as Southwestern Law School.
In addition to his mother, he is survived by his wife, Paula; and their two children, Matthew Jr. and Jade.
Services are pending.