June 3, 2013

I worked for Frank Lautenberg‘s first political race in 1982. A political neophyte, Frank started at the top of the political card, the U.S. Senate. It was still unusual then: a wealthy businessman spending his own money to win an election. His opponent was a political legend, Millicent Fenwick, known for her independence (she opposed Nixon), her eccentricity (she smoked a pipe) and her celebrity (she had a character based on her in the cartoon Doonesbury).


Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) (Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post)

No one thought Frank could win, except Frank.  He always had a swagger, a chip the size of Newark, before it shrunk, on his shoulder. Frank could get in your face and up in your grill.  He was born in the same New Jersey area as Rubin Carter, and like Hurricane, Frank liked to fight. To him, Mrs. Fenwick was a doddering dowager of a dying aristocracy; New Jersey needed a guy who had come up from the streets, built a leading technology company (he was the first client I ever had with a computer on his desk) and would champion the working-class people in his state. His slogan, “New Jersey: First,” fit him well.

It always burned Frank that he didn’t get the recognition that other, more charismatic New Jersey senators got. They were on the Sunday shows and in the presidential mix, but Frank had passion and good instincts. He wrote the law banning smoking on airplanes, which many regarded then as a kind of consumer advocacy beneath the dignity of a senator. But I never went anywhere with him in the campaign cycles that followed where people didn’t thank him for that law. It was a piece of his long philanthropic commitment to fighting cancer, a disease that killed his mother.

Frank was liberal and unabashed.  He never trimmed his sails on his opposition to the death penalty, even when the Republicans dug deep into central casting and ran Pete Dawkins against him in 1988. Dawkins was a Rhodes scholar, the captain of the West Point football team and the youngest general in Army history. Frank hired his own team of special forces, led by James Carville and Paul Begala, and Mr. Dawkins’s brief political career was over.

Frank also had a sense of humor. In 1982, my boss Bob Squier and I flew to Newark for a hastily arranged airport conference to get him to write a $2 million check for the first round of advertising. Frank hated self-funding and would never do it again in three more races.  After a lot of circuitous but tough questions, a Lautenberg trait, he finally instructed his treasurer to wire the money. As we headed to the gate, Bob and I realized we had no money to get a cab once we got back to Washington.  So we went back to Frank and asked to borrow $20. The request made him laugh. “I hope this puts me over the top,” he said.

In 1988, and it is too long a story, some joker substituted a porn tape in a cassette reel of rough-cut commercials we were showing the senator and his staff for approval. The tape played for a few seconds and the mortifying mistake was in the open, but Frank only laughed and said, “I look better than I thought.”