An exemplary Chinese American who dedicated his life to making a difference through public service and a member of the Committee of 100 since 1997, former California State Treasurer Matt Fong died on June 1 at his home in Pasadena. The cause was cancer. Undaunted by his illness, two weeks before his death, Fong gave a commencement speech for his alma mater, Southwestern School of Law, and received “thunderous applause” for his spirited words: “As fellow Southwestern graduates, we are survivors. Your future will be diverse and difficult but you will survive! Now, don’t forget to come back and give.”
C-100 Chairman Dominic Ng visited Fong and his family a few days before his death and found him “in good spirits and very much at peace with nature.” Fong was a C-100 Director for many years and also co-chaired the Membership Committee, which recruits new members. Ng recalled that not only did Fong bring him into C-100 more than a decade ago, but soon persuaded Ng to take over as Membership Co-Chair. “I am very much saddened that he left this world and his beautiful family at such a young age. He was a giant in our community and contributed tremendously to our society.”
The Committee of 100 issued a statement in tribute to Fong, which read in part, “In his lifelong pursuit for justice, Matt fought against the stereotypical portrayal of Chinese Americans as disloyal. The courage of his convictions continues to be a beacon guiding the Committee’s work in promoting opportunity for Chinese Americans in all facets of American life.”
Fong’s life in politics began when he helped his mother, March Fong Eu, the long-serving Democratic California Secretary of State, canvass door to door, and later managed her campaigns. But Fong’s political path began to change after he graduated from the Air Force Academy War College and served in active duty in the late 1970s. He began to feel that the Republican Party was more compatible with his political views. After earning an MBA from Pepperdine University in 1982 and a JD from Southwestern in 1985, Fong was an attorney at the law firm of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton in Los Angeles from 1985 to 1990, when he entered the political arena again, this time as a Republican candidate.
Although Fong lost his first run in 1990 for California State Controller to Gray Davis, Fong was appointed to the State Board of Equalization by his political mentor, the just-elected California Governor Pete Wilson. Experience leading the agency in charge of California’s sales and property taxes gave Fong a strong advantage in his campaign for State Treasurer in 1994, and he became the first Asian American Republican to hold statewide office in California. Fong managed a $32 billion portfolio with such notable achievements as navigating California successfully through the bankruptcy of Orange County and using sanctions to persuade Swiss banks in which California had major investments to recompense the Holocaust victims whose assets were being unjustly held by the banks.
The Committee honored newly-elected California State Treasurer Fong with the first C-100 award for Public Service, which was presented at an Awards Banquet held at the Huntington Library in San Marino in 1995 following the Annual Conference in Los Angeles.
Running as a moderate, Fong won the 1998 Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat held by Barbara Boxer, beating Darrell Issa, who spent almost four times as much as Fong. Boxer won by about 10 percent, after a highly competitive campaign with Fong gaining strong support from Asian Americans, including his mother. But being a Chinese American politician, particularly in national politics, was a challenge in itself.
Stewart Kwoh remembered a troubling question Fong got during the 1998 campaign: “A reporter, who knew Matt was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, an elected political leader in California, and from a family that had served Californians in elected positions for many decades, asked him which country he would support if there was a conflict between the U.S. and China.” Interviewed about this in Time, Fong commented, “There is a subtle stereotyping and racism below the surface. It caught Wen Ho Lee, and it caught me.’” (“Profiles In Outrage” by Howard Chua-Eoan). “Matt believed in fairness,” said Kwoh, President and Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, and would often ask Kwoh to look into issues that struck Fong as being unfair. Charlie Woo, CEO of Megatoys and active in the Democratic Party, said that “to Matt, community concerns transcended partisan politics. He never forgot the support he received from the Asian community throughout his political career and truly understood the use of political power to fight for social justice.”
Fong was adamant that Asian Americans should not shy away from politics. In 1999, he told journalist Sam Chu Lin that Asian Americans should instead get politically active: “What is important is that the electorate . . . start seeing us as a part of mainstream American politics, not as a sideshow . . .” He remained devoted to politics after his electoral defeat, but focused instead on helping others get in office. In the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, Fong was a top Republican campaigner and fundraiser for George W. Bush. In 2001, President Bush appointed Fong to chair the Advisory Committee to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a position that built on his experience as Trustee of the two California public pension funds, CalPers and CalStrs.
Former C-100 Chairman Bob Lee worked and played golf with Fong, who was a director during Lee’s four-year service, and said, “His fight with cancer itself reflected his very character. He was tenacious and tireless. Our organization was a beneficiary of his intensity.”
Another former C-100 Chairman, John Chen, was also Fong’s golf partner, and both men served on the Host Committee for the Stonebrae Classic (Hayward Nationwide PGA Tour), a favorite charitable project. Chen, who recently completed two years as C-100 Chair, said that Fong emailed him last month before the annual conference saying “how much he wanted to be with us and how sorry he felt that he had not been able to support my Chairmanship more. In fact, Matt had stepped up early as my CFO in 2009, but his illness returned shortly after and he had to resign.”
Mentoring young Asian Americans, especially those interested in public service, was Fong’s special passion. C-100 Executive Director Angie Tang served with Fong in the Bush Administration. “Matt was revered by Asian Americans in government regardless of political party affiliations. Many sought to learn from him political strategies and career advice. Matt was always generous and thoughtful with his time to help others advance.” Former C-100 Treasurer Herman Li often featured Fong as a public service role model in the Committee of 100 leadership forums that Li organized for students and young professionals in Southern California. “My first impression of Matt was his physical appearance—standing tall—and that's exactly how I feel about his personality and character.”
In 2000, high school student Victor Shen was sure he wanted to dedicate his life to military service and sought Fong out as a mentor, describing him as “a patriot who lived the American dream—courageous, honorable and visionary.” Fong was impressed with the 17-year old’s determination to learn from him and suggested that Shen volunteer for the Committee of 100 conference in Los Angeles to meet Chinese American leaders in all fields. Fong became Shen’s mentor and friend, following his career through West Point and the U.S. Army (where he has been posted in Iraq and Afghanistan). And, just as he has done almost every year since 2000, First Lieutenant Shen volunteered at this year’s Annual Conference. Before he left for his first posting, Shen even made the Committee of 100 one of the beneficiaries in his life insurance policy. Of Fong, Shen says, “Matt's legacy in business, military service and other public service sets an example for all of us. I am blessed to have known him and will be forever grateful for his friendship and mentorship.” The March 2009 Committee Bridges tells the story of this extraordinary mentor/mentee relationship.
Following are links to notable obituaries of Matt Fong with more details about his life and career: