SACRAMENTO (CBS / AP) — Former California state treasurer Matt Fong, a Republican who lost a challenge to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, died Wednesday after a four-year battle with cancer. He was 57.
His wife, Paula Fong, told The Associated Press that her husband died at their home in Pasadena with family and their son by his side. Matt Fong was the son of March Fong Eu, who served 20 years as secretary of state and was the first Asian elected to statewide office in California.
“He was alert up until this morning. He was asking what we’re going to do today,” Paula Fong said. “He was a great and wonderful person, a wonderful husband.” She said he had squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue.
Matt Fong, an attorney and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserve, was elected state treasurer in 1994 and served one term. In 1998, he unsuccessfully challenged Boxer for her Senate seat. Boxer issued a statement commending Fong for a distinguished career of public service.
“In our Senate race years ago, Matt was a strong competitor and we debated passionately, but we always had respect for one another,” Boxer said.
During that campaign, Boxer’s attack ads cast Fong as holding positions on abortion, gun control and the environment that were out of step with the majority of Californians. She started calling him “part of the extreme.”
In contrast, Fong presented himself as a social moderate. He believed, for example, that abortion should be legal during the first trimester.
He ran at a time when the party still favored centrist Republicans.
Fong, who was drawn by the party’s strong support of the military and small business, was able to edge out the more conservative candidate in the GOP primary. He ran against Darrell Issa, a wealthy car-alarm manufacturer who is now a member of Congress and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
During the 1998 race, the San Francisco Examiner reported that Fong had donated $50,000 to a conservative religious group for a poll that would support a campaign against same-sex marriages in California. He then signed a one-page letter pledging to maintain AIDS funding and to support laws against hate crimes and job discrimination as a way to appease the Log Cabin Club, a gay Republican group.
Fong, also has Democratic ties through his mother. Eu was the first Chinese-American elected to the state Legislature and just the second woman elected to statewide office in California. She served as secretary of state for nearly 20 years before resigning in 1994 to become U.S. ambassador to Micronesia.
She sought the Democratic nomination for the job a second time, in 2002, but lost to Kevin Shelley.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who served with Eu during his previous stint in the governor’s office, expressed his condolences to the family. State senators adjourned Wednesday’s session in Fong’s memory and honored him for blazing the trail for other Asian-American politicians.
“On behalf of all Californians, I wish to express gratitude for the service that Mr. Fong provided to our great state during his term as treasurer,” Brown said in a statement.
Former Gov. Pete Wilson, a political mentor to Fong, remembered him for his intellect and heart. Wilson helped launch Fong’s political career when he appointed him to the state Board of Equalization in 1991.
“He was a thoroughly decent, good man and one of the more talented public servants that I have been privileged to work with,” Wilson said in a statement.
As state treasurer, he encouraged smaller firms to compete for lucrative underwriting and advisory work on state financing deals, started a program to teach money management skills to elementary students and helped prevent the Orange County bankruptcy from impacting other counties, according to Ron Rogers, who was Fong’s campaign manager.
Current state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, said Fong “never forgot he was managing taxpayers’ money and never failed to put their interests first.”
Fong also earned an award from the Simon Wiesenthal Center for persuading Swiss banks to provide restitution to Holocaust victims whose assets were being held by the banks.
After losing the U.S. Senate race, Fong went on to run his own consulting firm and served as counsel to the law firm Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton in Los Angeles, where he specialized in transactional law and governmental relations.
He recently celebrated his 33rd wedding anniversary with his wife. Last month, Fong was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree from Southwestern Law School and delivered a commencement speech.
Paula Fong said her husband will be buried in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he attended the Air Force Academy. In addition to his wife and mother, Matt Fong is survived by his father, Chester Fong, his sister, Suyin Stein, daughter, Jade Fong, and son, Matthew Fong II.
(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services may have contributed to this report.)