- Former member of Congress, representing the 12th District of California
- Was a member of the Progressive Caucus
- Deceased, February 2008
Tom Lantos was a Democratic member of Congress, representing the 12th District of California from 1981 until his death in February 2008. Of Jewish heritage, he was the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in the House of Representatives.
Lantos was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1928. The Nazis invaded Hungary when Lantos was 16, and he was pressed into slave labor working on a bridge where he became the sole survivor of an allied bombing raid. He escaped and, like 100,000 other Hungarian Jews, was saved by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who later died in Soviet captivity. Lantos’ story is one of five told in the 1999 Academy Award-winning documentary The Last Days, produced by Steven Spielberg‘s Shoah Foundation.
In 1947 Lantos was awarded a Hillel Foundation scholarship to study in America. That August, he arrived penniless in New York City. Fluent in five languages, he went on to work his way through the University of Washington (Seattle) with a variety of odd jobs that included tutoring students in Latin, German, French and Italian and teaching Hungarian. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1949 and a master’s degree in 1950, the same year he wed his childhood sweetheart and fellow Holocaust survivor Annette Tillemann. The couple settled near the University of California at Berkeley, where Lantos earned a Ph.D. in International Economics in 1953 and then began a nearly 30-year career teaching at San Francisco State University.
In 1978-79, Lantos worked in Washington, DC as a foreign-affairs advisor to Senator Joseph Biden.
In 1980 Lantos ran for Congress against a one-term Republican incumbent. As a Republican tide swept unpopular Democratic President Jimmy Carter out of the White House, Lantos was one of only two Democrats nationwide to win an election against an unindicted Republican member of Congress. Throughout his years as a legislator, a portrait of Raoul Wallenberg hung behind Lantos’ desk in his congressional office.
Lantos became a member of the Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives. During his legislative career, he voted:
- against the development of a national missile defense system;
- against allowing the U.S. government to use electronic surveillance to investigate suspected terrorist operatives;
- against the establishment of military commissions to try enemy combatants captured in the war on terror;
- in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq immediately and by a preordained date;
- against President Bush’s 2007 decision to deploy some 21,500 additional U.S. soldiers in an effort to quell the violent insurgents in Iraq;
- in favor of a proposal to expedite the transfer of all prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay detention center;
- against requiring hospitals to report (to the federal government) illegal aliens who receive emergency medical treatment;
- against the Real ID Act, which proposed to set minimal security requirements for state driver licenses and identification cards;
- against separate proposals calling for the construction of some 700 miles of fencing to prevent illegal immigration along America’s southern border;
- against a proposal to grant state and local officials the authority to investigate, identify, and arrest illegal immigrants;
- against major tax cut proposals in September 1998, February 2000, March 2000, July 2000, May 2001, May 2003, October 2004, and May 2006;
- against a welfare-reform bill designed to move people off the welfare rolls and into paying jobs;
- in favor of prohibiting oil and gas exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR);
- against a proposal to fund offshore oil exploration along the Outer Continental Shelf;
- in favor of legislation (in 2001) to institute nationwide same-day voter registration on election days (a practice that would have eliminated most checks and safeguards that prevent fraudulent voting); and
- against a 1998 proposal to end racial preferences in college admissions
Lantos supported the war on terror more strongly than any other Progressive Caucus member. He voted in favor of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001; in favor of the post-9/11 anti-terrorism measure known as the Patriot Act; and in favor of an October 2002 joint resolution authorizing U.S. military action in Iraq.
Also unlike his fellow Progressive Caucus members, Lantos voted in 1999, 2001 and 2003 in favor of a Constitutional amendment to prohibit desecration of the American flag.
In 2001 Lantos supported the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw most of its diplomatic participation in the United Nations’ World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, after it became clear that the gathering would give prominence not only to anti-American but also to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic leaders. “My recommendation to Secretary [of State Colin] Powell and to the President will be that we do not participate as a government,” said Lantos. “To do so would make the United States a party to the lynching of Israel, which is the purpose of some delegates.”
In 2002 Lantos joined Republican House Whip Tom DeLay in sponsoring a resolution (HR 392) expressing support for Israel as it faced terrorist attacks that killed more than 600 civilians, including several Americans. The resolution stated that “the United States and Israel are now engaged in a common struggle against terrorism.”
One of Lantos’ biggest political donors was Steven Spielberg‘s DreamWorks SKG.
Lantos died on February 11, 2008, of complications from esophageal cancer.