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Rep. Lantos, Holocaust Survivor, Dies at 80

California Rep. Tom Lantos (D), a Holocaust survivor known for his dogged commitment to human rights issues, died early this morning at Bethesda Naval Medical Center after a bout with esophageal cancer. He was 80 and had served in the House since 1981.

Rep. Tom Lantos, 1928-2008

President George W. Bush, right, shakes hands with Lantos at the Capitol in March 2006. Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress, twice escaped from Nazi forced labor camps. (Reuters)

You can read about Lantos' eventful life and career here. He was the seventh sitting lawmaker to die during this Congress, following Reps. Julia Carson (D-Ind.), Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.), Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio), Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) and Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.), as well as Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.).

Lantos was a relatively rare breed on Capitol Hill, in that he inspired genuine bipartisan respect for his work on human rights issues and his stewardship of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which he chaired. Though a party-line Democrat on most issues, Lantos was known for teaming up with conservatives on the panel like Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) to bring scrutiny to the suppression of free speech in China and other issues. He also teamed up with many Republicans to back the Iraq war and advocate staunch support for Israel.

Lantos, who was born in Hungary, twice escaped Nazi labor camps when he was a teenager. He was active in the anti-Nazi underground before coming to the United States after World War II. During the war, storied Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg protected Lantos and other occupants of an apartment building from arrest by Nazi soldiers. As a member of Congress four decades later, Lantos promoted legislation granting honorary U.S. citizenship to Wallenberg.

Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel, speaking on CNN, said of Lantos: "He was one of those spokesman in Congress whose voices are needed ... whenever he spoke it was always for the victims; victims of injustice, of forgetting, victims of diseases, victims of dictatorships and totalitarianism."

One of the first members to put out a statement following Lantos' death was a Republican, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), who said: "Chairman Lantos will be remembered as a man of uncommon integrity and sincere moral conviction -- and a public servant who never wavered in his pursuit of a better, freer and more religiously tolerant world."

While it's too soon to know for sure how Democratic leaders will handle the now-vacant Foreign Affairs chairmanship, the most likely scenario is that the position will go to another Californian, Rep. Howard Berman (D). Currently second on the panel's seniority roster, Berman was expected to ascend to the position anyway next year.

Lantos announced Jan. 2 that he would not run for re-election because of his cancer diagnosis. Former state Sen. Jackie Speier (D) has been viewed as the frontrunner to succeed him in the 12th district, which stretches from San Francisco south toward Silicon Valley and is reliably Democratic.

Under state law, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) must within 14 days set a date for a special election to fill the remainder of Lantos' term. In the Golden State, candidates from all parties will compete together in a special primary. If a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, then the seat is theirs. If no one gets 50 percent, then the top finishers from each party compete in a special general election.

By Ben Pershing  |  February 11, 2008; 11:25 AM ET
Categories:  House  
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