Senate Democrats have many reasons to miss Frank Lautenberg.
The New Jersey Democrat was the Senate’s last World War II veteran. He was a liberal lawmaker who championed smoking bans on airplanes and in public spaces, who backed gun control throughout his 28-year Senate career, and who is credited with delivering key votes even from his sickbed.
Lautenberg’s death at age 89 stung longtime friends and colleagues. A vase of white roses rested on a black drape on his Senate desk Monday. Majority Leader Harry Reid eulogized Lautenberg on the floor, recalling his sense of humor and mentioning a joke involving “two wrestlers and a pretzel move,” which Reid did not retell. No one could tell a joke like Lautenberg, Reid said.
But Lautenberg’s death also shaves the Democratic majority from 55 to 54, with the likelihood that GOP Gov. Chris Christie will tap a Republican to fill the seat. Democratic leaders leaned on Lautenberg to return to the Senate floor earlier this year to cast a vote on gun-control legislation, a call that he answered in a wheelchair. “He was so happy to be here,” Reid said. At a time when Democrats must beat back GOP filibusters of White House appointees, they will miss Lautenberg’s vote.
“The nation’s going to miss his strength and progressive leadership,” Reid said.
Lautenberg announced earlier this year he planned to step down in 2014, but not before he had a public feud with Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a fellow Democrat who signaled his intentions to run before Lautenberg had said he would retire. “He’s got a lot of work to do—a lot of work that should have been done and hasn’t been done,” Lautenberg told National Journal earlier this year, referring to Booker.
The mayor offered the Lautenberg family condolences Monday and praised the senator as a “tireless partner who always delivered for the people of Newark.”
“The American people lost a true champion,” Booker said in a statement.
The reliably liberal Lautenberg was the Senate’s last surviving veteran of World War II. He served in the Army Signal Corps for four years as an enlisted soldier, attaining the rank of technician five, according to the Library of Congress. He served in the United Kingdom, Belgium, and France, and left the Army in 1946. Lautenberg credited the GI Bill for enabling him to get a college education.
“Frank cowrote the new GI Bill, which is much more expansive than any GI bill before because he knew what it did for him,” said Vice President Joe Biden, in a recorded eulogy on his website.
In a 2007 interview, Lautenberg described the camaraderie of his Army service. “It was an assimilation of different cultures, environments: country boys, city boys, tough guys, not-so-tough guys; but we all got along and we had to fend for one another,” he told the Library of Congress for its project on World War II vets.
After the Army, Lautenberg joined an early computing firm called Automatic Data Processing. When the company went public in 1961, according to The Almanac of American Politics, his stock shares were valued at $50,000. Last year, his net worth exceeded $49 million, according to financial-disclosure forms.
“Frank was a patriot whose success in business and politics made him a great American success story and a standout even within the fabled Greatest Generation,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
First elected to the Senate in 1982, Lautenberg sponsored, with then-Rep. Dick Durbin of Illinois, an amendment that banned smoking on commercial flights of two hours or less in 1987. A former smoker, Lautenberg also supported a bill banning smoking in all buildings that housed federally funded children’s programs. It became law in 1994. Earlier this year, he cosponsored legislation aimed at cutting back the illegal trafficking of tobacco products.
The senator was also a prominent gun-control advocate. He authored a law in 1996 that barred people convicted of domestic-violence crimes from possessing firearms. After he won reelection in 2008, he proposed legislation requiring background checks for firearm purchases at gun shows. After the lethal shooting in Tucson, Ariz., in which then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was severely injured, Lautenberg proposed banning high-capacity magazines. On the day of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., he called for an immediate legislative response. “If we do not take action to address gun violence, shooting tragedies like this will continue,” he said in a statement.
Lautenberg retired from the Senate in 2000, but returned to office after then-Sen. Robert Torricelli was forced to retire because of an ethics investigation in 2002. In deep-blue New Jersey, Lautenberg was able to defeat Republican Douglas Forrester in 2002, despite his late entry into the race. Lautenberg won reelection in 2008, easily dispatching Rep. Robert Andrews in the primary, and then GOP former Rep. Dick Zimmer in the general election.
Despite his liberal record, Lautenberg occasionally had chilly relationships with fellow Garden State Democrats. A clash between Lautenberg and Torricelli at a Democratic caucus meeting spilled into the headlines in 1999 over Torricelli’s indirect support for a possible campaign by Republican Christine Todd Whitman.
Torricelli reportedly directed profanity at Lautenberg, and their relationship never recovered, according to reports. So in 2002, when Torricelli became the subject of an ethics investigation and state Democrats sought a candidate to replace him on the ballot, Lautenberg put his name forward.
Lautenberg, who died of viral pneumonia according to his office, is survived by his wife, Bonnie, and six children. On Monday, flags at the Capitol were lowered to half-staff.
As Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey put it, “He was a man for New Jersey, a man for his time, one of the greatest generation.”
This article appears in the June 5, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Why Senate Democrats Will Miss Frank Lautenberg.