SAN FRANCISCO — Fresh off a historic meeting with Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi, Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, is gearing up for the final leg of his first primary challenge in more than a decade.
In his quest for a 13th term, Lantos, a California Democrat, must defeat a pair of political neophytes, lawyers Ro Khanna and Maad Abu-Ghazalah. The challengers are attempting to derail Lantos, known for his spirited commitment to human-rights causes, by attracting support from San Francisco liberals who were upset by the congressman’s pro-war position.
“I’m not losing much sleep, quite frankly,” Lantos told the Forward in an exclusive interview. “This is a free country. We have free elections and these two men have chosen to run against me, which is their privilege. I am looking forward — with great pleasure actually — to March 2.”
Despite the carefully chosen words he delivers in the accent of his native Hungary, that sounds suspiciously like, “Bring it on.” And considering his recent, somewhat uncharacteristic blitz of community groups and events in his district, plus almost $1.6 million in campaign contributions he raised in 2003 — the fourth-largest amount of any House member — it is hard to dismiss some pundits’ belief that Lantos, 76, wants to scare off any future challengers.
With the primary approaching, Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, has generated headlines with his trip to Libya. Last month, after receiving the Bush administration’s blessing, Lantos became the first U.S. elected official to visit Libya in almost four decades, and the first ever to meet face to face with Gadhafi.
Upon his return, Lantos met with State Department officials and committee chairman Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, to recommend that the United States lift its ban on travel to Libya and — if Gadhafi’s disarmament cooperation continues — eventually lift sanctions and restore diplomatic relations. It is a stunning recommendation, coming from a lawmaker who helped author the U.S. sanctions against Libya and often has railed on the House floor against the country’s human rights abuses.
“I am rational enough to recognize that we must accept ‘yes’ for an answer,” Lantos said. “Gadhafi’s record speaks for itself — it’s an abominable record — but the current actions also speak for themselves. He has now made a 180-degree turn.”
These days, Lantos sometimes sounds as if he has more positive things to say about Gadhafi’s new course than President Bush’s record. In recent months he has called Bush’s proposed budget “irresponsible,” knocked his space exploration plan as “spacey,” compared his environmental policy to “the fox guarding the hen house,” and tagged him with a “failing grade” for underfunding his much-ballyhooed education bill, the No Child Left Behind Act.
Yet one area in which Lantos and Bush concur is the necessity of the war in Iraq — though the congressman has been far more aggressive in criticizing pre-war intelligence failures, both men remain convinced that toppling Saddam Hussein was a worthwhile cause.
And that’s where his primary election challengers believe he’s vulnerable.
Lantos’s district encompasses about a fifth of San Francisco and many of its bedroom communities to the south — an area from which some of the nation’s most strident antiwar sentiments have sprung.
“Lantos has always been kind of a contradiction because he’s good on labor, and we support that aspect, but he’s one of the worst Democratic congressmen when it comes to issues of defense spending and war,” said Paul George, director of the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center in Palo Alto, based just outside of Lantos’s district but dominated by his constituents. “A lot of people in the district feel he’s way out of touch with their desires.”
Despite such sentiments, Lantos is expected to register an easy victory, after raising more than 10 times as much in political donations as his opponents combined.
Abu-Ghazalah, 41, is a Palestinian-American immigration attorney who also designs software for patent law firms. Nablus-born and U.S.-educated, he ran against Lantos in 2002 on the Libertarian ticket, taking 7% of the vote in a district where Libertarians accounted for just 0.5% of registered voters.
Khanna, a 27-year-old Indian-American, worked for Al Gore’s chief of staff on federal budget policy and for the Carter Center on reforming World Bank programs; he’s taken a leave of absence from his San Francisco law firm to run against Lantos.
Khanna says he offers a “new vision” for the district. His campaign Web site declares: “It is time to reject the politics of fear, and embrace the politics of innovation.” In an effort to fend off Lantos’s criticism of his party switch, Abu-Ghazalah said he always has been a social liberal and fiscal conservative. “I just felt the most important issues for me in today’s world are civil rights and foreign policy,” Abu-Ghazalah said, “and on those issues I think the Democrats are the strongest.”
Lantos said he stands by his record on all of those fronts. “As one who lost his entire family as a result of a war, there is no higher objective in my mind than peace,” he said. “It is not the peace of Neville Chamberlain, but the peace of Winston Churchill. The appeasement of dictators like Saddam Hussein or Hitler or Stalin is not a formula for peace, it is a formula for disaster.”
Lantos was 16 when the Nazis occupied his native Budapest; most of his family perished in the Holocaust, but he escaped from a work camp to join the underground, delivering goods to hidden Jews. He came to America in 1947 to study and, after a career as a professor, international affairs analyst for public television and business consultant, was elected to the House in 1980.
The longtime lawmaker has drawn criticism over his initial refusal to debate his primary challengers — and later, his insistence on holding the forum February 27, four days before the election. Critics accused him of arrogance and political gamesmanship, claiming he purposely set the date after most endorsements were made and most absentee ballots — the means by which about one in three of the district’s votes are being cast these days — will be mailed in by.
A San Mateo County Times editorial published January 21 accused Lantos of “looking more like a weasely politician than a stand-up leader of the people.” Soon after, The San Mateo Daily News slammed Lantos for “acting like a typical game-playing Washington politician” and advised voters to hold off on casting their ballots until after the debate.
Lantos insists he’s being accommodating. “To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time in the history of this congressional district that an incumbent has agreed to a debate in a primary,” Lantos said. “Every political pundit says it’s crazy for an incumbent with the kind of support I’ve had in past elections.”
But, Lantos said, he’s “passionately committed to the concept of public debate,” and defended the date of the forum, noting that the district’s general-election debates usually are held days before voters go to the polls. “That is when people focus on the election and that was the date that was convenient for me.”