Frank Lautenberg dies: US senator from N.J. remembered for World War II service
The senior US senator and Democrat from New Jersey made his name on gun control and tobacco issues.
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Lautenberg did not possess a dynamic speaking style or telegenic face and for his first 14 years in the Senate, he was often in the shadow of New Jersey's other, better known senator, Bill Bradley, a former pro basketball player and 2000 presidential candidate. But he proved a formidable and bruising foe to Republicans who constantly considered him vulnerable politically.Skip to next paragraph
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Running for an open Senate seat in 1982, Lautenberg won 51 percent of the vote against Fenwick, the model for the cartoon character Lacey Davenport in "Doonesbury." The win, financed largely with $3 million of Lautenberg's own fortune, was a shocker.
Fenwick was 72 when Lautenberg questioned her capacity to serve in the Senate. On the campaign trail, he criticized her "capability" to be a senator, but some observers seemed to think he was going after her age — a fact that was noted 26 years later when he ran for re-election at age 84.
"It's hard when your own words come back to haunt you, isn't it, Mr. Lautenberg?" said an ad for his Democratic primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews, whom he defeated handily before beating former U.S. Rep. Dick Zimmer in the general election.
After Lautenberg won the 1982 election, Nicholas Brady, who had been appointed to serve the remainder of the previous term, resigned early to give Lautenberg valuable seniority over other new senators. He was sworn in Dec. 27, 1982, by a federal judge from Denver while he was vacationing in Vail, Colo.
In 1988, Lautenberg faced Pete Dawkins, a handsome Heisman Trophy winner who attended the U.S. Military Academy and went on to become a brigadier general and successful executive. Lautenberg's campaign assailed Dawkins as an out-of-touch carpetbagger and ran ads urging Dawkins, "Be Real, Pete." Lautenberg won with 54 percent of the vote.
He won a third term in 1994 against Republican Garabed "Chuck" Haytaian, despite the GOP gains nationwide that overturned Democratic majorities in the Senate and House and Haytaian's criticism of Lautenberg as a "silent senator."
In his unusual five-week return to campaigning in 2002, Lautenberg persevered with a steady, risk-averse campaign that portrayed him as a "serious senator" for "serious times" a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Republicans focused on Lautenberg's liberal voting record, notably his opposition to the death penalty, development of a missile defense system and the 1991 resolution authorizing force against Iraq. By ducking debates, Lautenberg only fed GOP charges that he was trying to hide his views, his age, or both.
Lautenberg said that even in a time of war, people remained deeply concerned about the domestic issues — the economy, guns, the environment — that were his primary focus as a senator.
"I want to be able to continue these programs, even as we ready ourselves to defend our country at home and fight terrorism against our citizens, wherever they may be," he said in his victory speech.
He finally decided in 2013 not to seek re-election in 2014. He announced his decision months after Newark Mayor Cory Booker expressed interest in running for the seat.
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Born in urban Paterson, N.J., the son of Polish and Russian Jewish immigrants, Lautenberg never forgot his roots. He often recounted what government did for him — and what it could have done to help his widowed mother as she struggled to pay his father's medical bills.
"We want to help. That's government's role," Lautenberg said during his successful bid for re-election in 1994.
He was educated at Nutley High School and served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II. With the help of the G.I. bill, he received an undergraduate degree in economics from Columbia University.
Lautenberg, who lived in Cliffside Park, N.J., is survived by his wife, Bonnie, and four children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1988.