Obituary: Frank R. Lautenberg / 5-term New Jersey senator championed environment

Jan. 23, 1924 - June 3, 2013

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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 the statement, and had previously suffered from cancer. Mr. Lautenberg "improved the lives of countless Americans with his commitment to our nation's health and safety," President Barack 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. Bob Casey, D-Pa., issued a statement, saying: "I had the honor and privilege of working with him in the Senate, including a 2009 congressional delegation trip to Israel and Turkey. The trip greatly contributed to our understanding of the Middle East peace process, and Frank's presence was invaluable to our delegation. He was a tireless advocate for the people of New Jersey, and his efforts in important areas such as public health, education, transportation and veterans will leave a lasting legacy."

Mr. Lautenberg initially retired in 2000, after three terms, but returned to the Senate two years later at age 78 and quickly became one of the George W. Bush administration's sharpest critics.

From humble roots in a New Jersey mill town, Mr. Lautenberg 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.

"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 during his first 18 years in office as a scrappy politician who thought government had enabled his own rise to wealth and thus favored expansive federal programs. As chair of the transportation appropriations 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, a victory that was credited with opening the way for restrictions on smoking in public buildings.

He was instrumental in passing laws that raised the legal drinking age to 21, prohibited domestic-violence convicts 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.

Working in the shadow of New Jersey's senior senator, fellow Democrat Bill Bradley, a telegenic former basketball star and presidential candidate with a penchant for wonky national policy debates, Mr. Lautenberg was known for tending to the everyday concerns of New Jerseyites. 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.

He won his first race for Senate after calling his 72-year-old opponent, Republican Rep. Millicent Fenwick, 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 ugly enough to be 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 Jerseyite and Democrat Robert Torricelli -- a flamboyant member of the House who was elected to the Senate in 1996, after Mr. Bradley retired -- was known as one of the most bitter feuds in Congress.

Mr. Lautenberg and Mr. Torricelli refused to speak with one another for nearly a year. In a meeting of Senate colleagues in 1999, Mr. Torricelli threatened Mr. Lautenberg in a profanity-laced explosion. The origins of their mutual hatred was never quite clear, but it had not faded by 2002, when Mr. Torricelli dropped out of his race for re-election amid allegations that he had accepted bribes.

Mr. Lautenberg -- who had immediately expressed regret after leaving office in 2000 -- stepped in, becoming the Democratic candidate just five weeks before Election Day. Mr. Torricelli refused to turn over a penny of his $5.1 million campaign war chest.

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

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. Mr. Lautenberg blamed his father's death on bad air in the mills, a belief he later said motivated his interest in labor rights and environmental safety.

He joined the U.S. 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 firm that prepared payrolls for local companies.

Taub, who died in 2011, hired him as the first salesman for the company that became Automatic Data Processing. Mr. Lautenberg rose to become chief executive officer of the company, which went public in 1961 and now employs more than 40,000 people. 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. Mr. Lautenberg seized the opportunity to jump into politics, spending millions of his own dollars to win the election.

Democrats did not restore his seniority or committee assignments upon his return to Congress in 2002. Unburdened by leadership roles, he became a partisan warrior who repeatedly attacked the George W. Bush administration for 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 reprimanded Vice President Dick Cheney as a "chicken hawk" who had never fought in combat but was willing to send others to war.

obituaries - nation - electionspresident - environment


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