SACRAMENTO (CBS / AP) — Charles T. Manatt, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a U.S. ambassador during the Clinton administration, has died. He was 75.

His daughter, Michele A. Manatt, said he died Friday at Kindred Hospital in Richmond, Va., of complications from a stroke.

Manatt was party chairman from 1981-85, the first term of Republican Ronald Reagan and a difficult period for Democrats. A longtime California Democrat, Manatt was credited with building the party’s finances, modernizing it through computerization, direct mail and other initiatives, and building a new headquarters in Washington.

On the eve of the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco, presidential nominee-in-waiting Walter Mondale tried to replace Manatt with Carter administration official Bert Lance. Mondale backed off after an outcry within the party, triggered in part by Manatt’s positive reputation in the ranks and Lance’s ties to a banking scandal for which he had been tried and acquitted. Reagan cruised to an easy victory over Mondale for a second term.

Manatt and the party fared better in 1992, when he was co-chairman of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. Clinton later appointed Manatt as ambassador to the Dominican Republic, where he served from 1999-2001.

“I am deeply saddened by the passing of Chuck Manatt,” Clinton said in a statement released by Manatt’s law firm, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. “We were friends for 30 years, and I saw firsthand how he used his energy, intellect and common sense to help restore the Democratic Party after 1980, to make America more prosperous and just and to make friends for our nation around the world.”

Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the current DNC chairwoman, praised Manatt on Saturday for being an “active force for change.”

“With Chuck Manatt’s passing, our country and our party lost a very good man,” she said in a statement. “His opinion remained sought after to the day of his death, and his influence will long be felt in our party.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, recalled Manatt as eager to help others.

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Ambassador Charles T. Manatt,” said Vilsack. “I first met Chuck in 1985 — when he was already a prominent figure in national politics — but he was willing spend time to listen to and encourage me as a young lawyer.

“He will be remembered above all for his generosity and commitment to helping those less fortunate.”

Manatt was born June 9, 1936, in Chicago and raised on a farm near Audubon, Iowa. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State University in 1958 and a law degree from George Washington University in 1962.

With his longtime friend Thomas Phelps, Manatt founded their banking and financial services law firm in Los Angeles in 1965. Today, the firm has offices in California, New York and Washington, and is ranked one of the largest in the nation.

Manatt was a chairman of the California Democratic Party during the 1970s and later served as finance chairman of the national party. He also was a trustee of George Washington University from 1980-2008 and its chairman of the board of trustees from 2001-2007.

Survivors include his wife, Kathleen, and their three children, Michele, Timothy and Daniel.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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