Sen. Frank Lautenberg, five-term New Jersey Democrat, dies at 89

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a five-term New Jersey Democrat and reliably liberal voter who campaigned to toughen anti-smoking laws and environmental regulations, died Monday at a hospital in New York City. He was 89.

He had complications from viral pneumonia, according to a statement from his office, and had previously suffered from cancer.

Sen. Lautenberg “improved the lives of countless Americans with his commitment to our nation’s health and safety,” President Obama said in a statement, “from improving our public transportation to protecting citizens from gun violence to ensuring that members of our military and their families get the care they deserve.”

Sen. Lautenberg initially retired in 2000, after three terms, but returned to the Senate two years later as a 78-year-old freshman lawmaker who quickly became one of the Bush administration’s sharpest critics.

From humble roots in a New Jersey mill town, Sen. Lautenberg had made a fortune building Automatic Data Processing, one of the world’s largest payroll-
services companies. A generous Democratic campaign donor, he entered politics after deciding he might as well bankroll his own ambitions.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie put aside prepared remarks at a conference Monday to remember Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died that morning. (Courtesy Gov. Christie’s office)

“I supported Birch Bayh, Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart, John Glenn,” he told the Trenton Times in 1982. “I thought, ‘If I’m willing to support them, why shouldn’t I support myself?’ ”

First elected in 1982, he built a reputation as a scrappy politician who thought government had enabled his own rise to wealth and thus favored expansive federal programs.

As chair of the Senate’s Appropriations transportation subcommittee, the former two-pack-a-day smoker crusaded against the tobacco industry and in 1989 won a smoking ban on almost all domestic airline flights. That was credited with opening the way for restrictions on smoking in public buildings.

Sen. Lautenberg was instrumental in passing laws that raised the legal drinking age to 21, prohibited those convicted of domestic violence from buying guns and required companies to disclose the chemicals they release into the environment, an early “right-to-know” provision that became a model for others.

Toiling for much of his career in the shadow of New Jersey’s senior senator, Bill Bradley (D), a telegenic former basketball star and presidential candidate with a penchant for wonky national policy debates, Sen. Lautenberg was known for tending to the everyday concerns of his constituents. He brought home billions of dollars for highways and transit projects, secured a ban on offshore dumping and in 1985 led the effort to continue the Superfund hazardous-waste cleanup program.

Political ‘gladiator’

Sen. Lautenberg was known as a combative legislator who was willing to do whatever it took to prevail.

“Gladiator sports are in,” he said in 1988. “I’m not saying I approve. I’m saying that a lot of people like their politics the way they like their hockey: rough.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., - the last remaining WWII veteran to serve in the Senate - died from complications of viral pneumonia Monday at the age of 89.

He won his first race for Senate after calling his 72-year-old opponent, Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R), a “national monument,” insinuating she was too old to serve. In 1988, he called Republican opponent Pete Dawkins a carpetbagger and a liar in a race recounted in Kerwin C. Swint’s 2008 book “Mudslingers: The Twenty-Five Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time.”

The senator’s icy relationship with fellow New Jersey Democrat Robert G. Torricelli — a flamboyant member of the House who was elected to the Senate in 1996 when Bradley retired — was known as one of the most bitter feuds in Congress.

The senators refused to speak to one another for nearly a year. The origin of their mutual hatred was never clear, but it had not faded by 2002, when Torricelli dropped out of his reelection race amid allegations that he had accepted bribes.

Sen. Lautenberg — who had immediately expressed regret after leaving office in 2000 — became the Democratic candidate five weeks before election day. Torricelli refused to turn over a penny of his $5.1 million campaign war chest.

In 2008, at 84, Sen. Lautenberg won his fifth term. He championed Amtrak, securing a bill authorizing $20 billion to keep the system running, and led the push to reduce exposure to toxins by tightening chemical-safety laws.

Son of immigrants

Frank Raleigh Lautenberg was born Jan. 23, 1924, in Paterson, N.J., to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father, a failed small-businessman who worked in local silk mills, died of cancer in his early 40s. Sen. Lautenberg blamed his father’s death on bad air in the mills and later said that the loss motivated his interest in labor rights and environmental safety.

He joined the Army Signal Corps and served in Europe during World War II before going to Columbia University on the GI Bill. He graduated in 1949 with a degree in economics and sold insurance for several years before joining forces with Henry Taub, whose father also had worked in the Paterson mills and who was launching a payroll firm.

Taub hired the future senator as the first salesman for what became Automatic Data Processing. Sen. Lautenberg ultimately became chief executive officer of the company, which went public in 1961. He amassed millions of dollars that he used to endow a professorship at Columbia and establish a cancer research center in Israel.

In 1978, he became a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Four years later, Sen. Harrison Williams Jr. (D-N.J.) resigned after being convicted of corruption in the Abscam sting operation, in which FBI agents posed as Arabs seeking political favors.

Sen. Lautenberg seized the political opportunity, spending millions of his own dollars to win the seat. He was sworn in early, in order to complete his predecessor’s unexpired term, at his vacation home in Vail, Colo.

“There’s an emotional thing about being senator,” he said, according to the New York Times, looking at the slopes and the skiers atop them. “They don’t know I’m a senator, but I know and my family knows.”

His marriage of more than 30 years to Lois Levenson ended in divorce. He married Bonnie Englebardt in 2004. Besides his wife, survivors include four children from his first marriage, Ellen Lautenberg, Nan Morgart, Josh Lautenberg and Lisa Birer; two stepchildren, Danielle Englebardt and Lara Englebardt Metz; and 13 grandchildren.

Democrats did not restore his seniority or committee assignments upon his return to the Senate in 2002. Unburdened by leadership roles, he became a partisan warrior who repeatedly attacked Bush administration policies, including tax cuts and no-bid Iraq War contracts. In 2004, accompanied on the Senate floor by a giant cartoon image of a chicken, he branded Vice President Dick Cheney as a “chicken hawk” who had never fought in combat but was willing to send others to war.

“You know what Lautenberg is? He’s the happiest man alive,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said not long after that episode. “He’s got nothing to lose.”

Indeed, Sen. Lautenberg, then 80, told the Times: “I do feel unconstrained.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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