Hill Mourns Matsui’s Passing

Posted January 3, 2005 at 7:02pm

Democrats and Republicans, shocked and saddened Monday by the sudden death of Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.), planned a series of activities to memorialize their former colleague, including floor speeches, a Capitol tribute and a resolution honoring his Congressional tenure.

Matsui, 63, died Saturday night at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., of complications resulting from a rare stem-cell disease called Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS). The disorder, caused by environmental influences such as toxins or viruses, prevents the bone marrow from producing blood products and weakens the body’s ability to fend off other illnesses.

Matsui had been hospitalized on Dec. 24 with pneumonia.

California’s most senior House Members, Reps. Jerry Lewis (R) and Pete Stark (D), will offer a resolution in Matsui’s honor on the floor today. Members will also be given an opportunity to offer five-minute speeches of remembrance for the longtime California Democrat.

Matsui’s body will lay in state at the state Capitol in Sacramento. A memorial service will be held Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. in Statuary Hall, to be immediately followed by a reception in the Rayburn Room, both of which are ticketed and limited to Members and their immediate family. A funeral is expected Saturday in California.

Outside of Matsui’s family, few people knew that the California Member was ill as he prepared to begin his 14th term in Congress. He is survived by his wife, Doris, son, Brian, daughter-in-law, Amy and granddaughter, Anna.

Matsui, one of the closest Congressional friends of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), joined the leadership in the past cycle as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He was also a senior and influential member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Matsui was especially known for his knowledge of tax and trade policy and was viewed as the leading source among House Democrats on Social Security issues. Matsui’s death comes at a time when Congress is preparing to weigh major changes to the nation’s Social Security system.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that Matsui’s expertise on Social Security is “virtually irreplaceable.”

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member on Ways and Means, said, “There was no greater champion of truly protecting and strengthening Social Security than Bob Matsui.”

Pelosi called Matsui a great leader and a defender of Social Security, economic justice and children. She also spoke of Matsui’s personal courage.

Matsui, a Japanese American, was imprisoned in 1942 at the Tule Lake internment camp. Matsui, who was just 6 months old, and his family were taken from Sacramento to the camp following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Four decades later, Matsui helped shepherd through Congress the Japanese-American Redress Act, which called for a formal government apology for the World War II internment program.

“Despite being imprisoned in an internment camp as a very young boy, Bob always had hope in the promise of taking from this experience an empathy for others, a belief in civil rights and a passion for excellence which was expressed in his public service,” Pelosi said.

Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, echoed those sentiments, calling him a “remarkable public servant whose values were in the right place.”

Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) called Matsui the “ideal Congressman” who was mellow in nature but a fighter for issues he believed in.

“He was a leader in the House not so much because of seniority or position, but because everyone liked him, respected him and recognized his ability,” Spratt said.

Republicans also praised Matsui’s tenure. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called Matsui a “passionate defender of his ideals” who brought dignity and honor to the House.

“Bob was a dedicated Democrat who worked well with Republicans to get good things done for the American people,” Hastert said. “He was a leader in the truest sense of the word and leaves behind a remarkable record of accomplishment.”

Treasury Secretary John Snow said that his friendship with Matsui extended back 25 years, to Snow’s tenure in the Ford administration. At the time, Matsui was a young and junior Member of Congress.

Later, when Snow took the helm of the Business Roundtable, he and Matsui joined forces to push for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Matsui, who by then had become a senior member of Ways and Means, led a minority of Democrats who backed the Clinton administration on the agreement.

“He was a tremendous leader in the trade arena,” Snow said in an interview.

Matsui’s death is having echoes as far away as California. A special all-party primary to fill the seat will be held in March, with a runoff to come in May if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote in the initial balloting.

The timing of the election will be set during the next few days by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

Because the Sacramento-based 5th district is so heavily Democratic, the leading candidates to replace Matsui are all Democrats. That list is headed by his widow, 60-year-old Doris Matsui.

Although the Congressman never groomed a political successor, several sources in California and Washington said that Doris Matsui, a seasoned political player in her own right, would have the blessing of the entire Democratic establishment if she wants the job.

Doris Matsui, who met her husband while she was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley and he was attending law school there, is the director of government relations at the law firm Collier Shannon Scott. She lobbies on behalf of technology manufacturers, telecommunications companies and financial institutions, though not before the Ways and Means Committee.

Doris Matsui, who was born in an internment camp, also served in the Clinton White House as deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of public liaison.

In that role, she served as the White House liaison to the Asian-American community — a portfolio that linked her in some news articles to John Huang, the Democratic National Committee fundraiser who pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws. Doris Matsui was never accused of wrongdoing, however, and maintained that she merely interacted with Huang at White House events.

If she opts to succeed her husband, she would have recent Golden State history on her side: Reps. Mary Bono (R) and Lois Capps (D) replaced their husbands in Congress when they died.

If she does not run, former state Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D) would consider making a bid. Steinberg, who was recently term-limited after serving six years in the Legislature, also spent six years on the city council, where the late Congressman once served.

Steinberg was gearing up to run for state Senate in 2006, where he hoped to succeed term-limited Democrat Deborah Ortiz. Ortiz is also mentioned as a possible candidate for Matsui’s seat, as is Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson (D), Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo, Assemblyman Dave Jones (D), and former California Secretary of Human Services Grantland Johnson (D).

In the meantime, efforts had already been under way to find a successor at the DCCC.

Even before the seriousness of his condition became clear, Matsui had not been expected to accept another two-year term heading the committee. In fact, Pelosi was on the cusp of naming his replacement as early at this week. Pelosi said Monday she would name a successor “when it’s appropriate” — likely later this week or early next.

House Democrats lost three seats in the 2004 election; they now control 202 seats to 232 for Republicans. Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) caucuses with Democrats, and the Democratic total is expected to rise to 203 after Matsui’s seat is filled.

Despite the net loss of seats, many Democrats believed Matsui did a good job under difficult circumstances. Many urged him to serve another term at the DCCC.

The odds-on favorite for DCCC chairman, according to numerous party sources, is Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.). Emanuel said previously that his first priority in the 109th Congress was to win a spot on the Ways and Means Committee — a plum he would likely receive in exchange for chairing the party’s campaign arm.

Others to express an interest in the job are Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), a close Pelosi confidant, and Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), an up-and-coming party footsoldier.

Emanuel declined to comment, citing Matsui’s passing.

Matsui’s death also leaves a vacant seat on Ways and Means and opens the ranking member position on the committee’s Social Security subcommittee. Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) is next in line on that secondary panel.

In addition, questions remain about who might be next in line to serve as ranking member on the full committee (or chairman, in a Democratic House). Matsui, although third in line behind Rangel and Stark, was widely believed to have been in line to succeed Rangel if he had retired.

Behind Stark and Matsui on the panel are Reps. Sander Levin (Mich.) and Cardin.

The Matsui family and friends are establishing a charitable fund in memory of the Congressman and ask that all gifts be sent to The Matsui Foundation for Public Service, P.O. Box 1347, Sacramento, CA 95812.

Chris Cillizza, Josh Kurtz and Ethan Wallison contributed to this report.