Sunday, January 2, 2005

Rep. Robert T. Matsui, California Democrat, champion of Social Security and a man who kept his party’s House losses to a minimum in the November elections, died late Saturday at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda of complications from a rare bone marrow disorder.

The 63-year-old was interned as an infant in California with other Japanese-Americans during World War II, then rose to represent a congressional district in Sacramento for more than a quarter-century.

He would have been sworn in tomorrow for his 14th term in Congress.

“While his death is untimely and tragic, his life was certainly filled with great accomplishment, and he and his family have justifiable pride in what he accomplished in life,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

Mr. Matsui was 6 months old when he and his family were sent to the Tule Lake Internment Camp. He said his father was so stunned by the thought that the U.S. government would intern American citizens that he wouldn’t talk about it for 40 years.

The Californian led the fight for federal redress for internees, which passed in 1988 and which, he said during the debate on the floor of the House, “demonstrates the true character of America in a way that the whole world can recognize. While all countries inevitably make mistakes, few have the courage and wisdom to recognize and acknowledge those mistakes.”

Mr. Matsui was the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, a critical position for Democrats as they faced a push by President Bush to overhaul the system.

“There was no greater champion of truly protecting and strengthening Social Security than Bob Matsui, and I must admit that we never imagined we would have to go into a major debate on Social Security’s future without him,” said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat.

“When Bob spoke, he knew his stuff,” said Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., South Carolina Democrat.

“I was last with him on December 22 for a press conference on Social Security that attracted 30 reporters and went on for an hour, mainly because Bob’s answers were so strong, rational and informed.”

Mr. Matsui’s office released a statement yesterday saying that for the past few months he had been battling myelodysplastic syndromes, in which bone marrow stops producing healthy blood cells, making him more susceptible to other infections.

He entered the medical center Dec. 24 with pneumonia.

He is survived by his wife, Doris, son Brian, daughter-in-law Amy and granddaughter Anna.

“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,” Mrs. Matsui said.

Mr. Hoyer said Mr. Matsui took a more partisan tone the past two years after becoming chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the man charged with electing Democrats to the House.

But before that, Mr. Matsui mixed a socially liberal voting record with a reputation as a pro-trade Democrat who could work with Republicans on the issue.

As chairman of the DCCC, Mr. Matsui faced a daunting task last year. He had to help defend a few incumbents in Texas against challenging redistricting, while trying to win enough seats elsewhere to compensate for the expected losses.

Most Democrats say the effort was as successful as could be hoped, and Mr. Hoyer said that without the Texas losses, Democrats actually would have netted a couple of seats in the House, even as their party was suffering major setbacks in the Senate and lost the presidential race.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, called Mr. Matsui “a man 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. He was a leader in the truest sense of the word and leaves behind a remarkable record of accomplishment.”

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