Robert T. Matsui, a California Democrat who served 26 years in Congress, died on Jan. 1 of complications from myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare blood disorder. He was 63.
The Sacramento native was born in 1941, three months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He and his parents were forced to live in internment camps for three years during World War II. Due to poor living conditions, his pregnant mother contracted German measles and gave birth to a blind daughter, Barbara.
In the 1980s, Matsui helped pass legislation that apologized for the U.S. government’s internment policy. President Ronald Reagan signed the Japanese-American Redress Act in 1988, which also established a $1.25 billion trust fund to pay reparations to the Japanese-Americans detained in the camps.
Matsui graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and Hastings College of the Law at the University of California. He decided to become an attorney after reading Clarence Darrow’s autobiography. Matsui founded his own law firm and served on the Sacramento City Council. He was working as the vice mayor in 1978 when he won a seat representing the capital city’s fifth district in Congress.
During his 14 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, Matsui obtained financing for light rail projects and flood protection for the Sacramento region. He was one of the original authors of legislation that created the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Even though it put him at odds with other members of the Democratic Party, Matsui was also a strong supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Matsui was the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the past two years and the third-ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. In recent weeks, he had prepared to oppose President George W. Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security. Matsui believed that such a proposal would cut benefits, raise the retirement age and reduce retirees’ standard of living. Instead, he proposed updating Social Security incrementally, in order to ensure its long-term solvency.
Re-elected last November with 71.4 percent of the vote, Matsui’s death will trigger a special election for a new representative. His wife, Doris, a former director of public liaison in the Clinton White House, has been mentioned as a possible candidate.