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Frank Lautenberg a 'throwback' senator who never sought the spotlight (+video)

Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday, was always an outsider in the Senate, where his businessman's sensibilities led to impressive achievements but clashes with leadership.

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When he first came to the Senate in 1983, Lautenberg stumbled badly, says Professor Baker, who followed Lautenberg’s Senate career on and off Capitol Hill.

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“He believed that as a CEO he had special powers and was more experienced in the real world than his colleagues and tried to throw his weight around in a way that antagonized a lot of people,” he says.“To his credit, he realized that things were not going his way and convened a group of senior Democratic staff members who, over several weekends, came to his house and to give him senator lessons.”

“But he never entirely lost that CEO sheen,” he adds. “He stood apart in many ways. He was somebody who felt that he should be judged by the excellence of his proposals, which is not unreasonable, but not always the best strategy in the Senate.”

A defining moment for Lautenberg came in 1987, when he, along with then-Rep. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, challenged the power of the smoking lobby and tobacco-state lawmakers to pass a two-year ban on smoking on domestic flights scheduled to last two hours or less. It was the first big win in what would become a crusade protect the public from secondary smoke.  

Urged by tobacco-state colleagues to defer the vote for more study, Lautenberg, who chaired the Senate appropriations subcommittee vetting the bill, rehearsed the evidence on the health risks of passive smoking in an Oct. 1 markup.

“With all due respect, I think the time is now to deal with this,” he said. When the full committee chair called for a vote, Lautenberg, in a surprise move, produced nine proxies that sent the bill, with the ban, to the Senate floor. The ban passed on the Senate on Oct. 29 by voice vote.

But Lautenberg also bucked Democratic leadership, breaking with President Clinton on his 1993 budget deal and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He also strongly opposed the 1991 Resolution to use force in Iraq.

Lautenberg retired from the Senate in 2000, but was wooed back to the Senate after allegations of corruption forced Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey to give up his reelection bid. With only five weeks to Election Day, Lautenberg agreed to come out of retirement. He went on to defeat self-financing GOP businessman Doug Forrester and save the seat for Democrats.

But in a disappointing move, Senate Democrats refused to give Lautenberg full credit for previous years of seniority, which would have put him in the front ranks for committee chairmanships in the new Congress.

As a result, Lautenberg was even less beholden to party leaders in his legislative strategy and bolder in defense of what he saw as core liberal values. Democrats say they will miss him in the upcoming fight over immigration.

“He improved the lives of countless Americans with his commitment to our nation’s health and safety, 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," said President Obama in a statement on Monday.

While he had bitter feuds with several top New Jersey politicians, without regard to party identification, his life also attracted respect.

“He had an inspirational story,” says Alvin Felzenberg, a former New Jersey assistant secretary of state and GOP staffer, who worked on the Fenwick campaign. “He was the American dream: a poor kid, immigrant parents in the gritty streets of Paterson, N.J., who started a company from nothing, made his money when he was young and gave a lot of money to charity, including cancer research in the US and Israel. It’s a great American story.”

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