Frank Lautenberg a 'throwback' senator who never sought the spotlight

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.

Mel Evans/AP/File
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey, the last World War II veteran in the US Senate, tells a gathering in his hometown of Paterson, N.J., that he plans to retire at the end of his current term. Lautenberg, a multimillionaire New Jersey businessman who had been called out of retirement for a second tour of duty in Congress, died Monday.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday, was a longtime senator who never became a Senate insider, the last of the World War II veterans in the US Senate, and one of the very few lawmakers to ever return to the Senate after a retirement.

Despite never chairing a full committee, Senator Lautenberg built up a formidable legislative legacy, including legislation to ban smoking on most domestic  flights and to raise the legal drinking age to 21.

After 9/11, he relentlessly pushed for higher spending on homeland security and, especially, on the transportation and environmental issues concerning his home state of New Jersey.

He also took on powerful gun, tobacco, and alcohol lobbies over his nearly five terms in the Senate, including a dramatic return to the Senate floor in April to back President Obama’s gun control measures, while struggling with illness. (The measures failed.)

Yet his commitments were more to liberal values and causes than to party or party leaders. Despite serving nearly 28 years in the Senate, he never broke into Senate leadership circles, where what counted most was raising campaign funds and loyalty to a party line.

“He was a throwback to an earlier era,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “Leaving the leadership to others and avoiding the spotlight, he seemed content, from what we know, to build a legacy based on his legislative achievements.”

“Today, senators all seem to scramble for leadership positions and to get some airtime on television," he adds. “He was like the old conservative Southern Democrats using their committee positions, quietly, to push for their causes in the 1950s and ’60s.”

Like many senators who come to the US Senate from a highly successful business career, Lautenberg found the clubby, slow-moving culture of the Senate to be somewhat of a shock. 

The son of Polish and Russian immigrants, Lautenberg as a teenager worked nights to help support his family after his father’s death. After World War II, he studied economics at Columbia University and later helped launch Automatic Data Processing, now one of the world’s largest data-processing companies.  

In 1982, with the help of the team that would later launch Bill Clinton’s first presidential run, Lautenberg spent $4 million of his own money and upset Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R) of New Jersey, a popular icon then viewed as a shoo-in for the US Senate seat held by Democratic Sen. Harrison Williams, who was convicted in a federal corruption probe. A scorching ad campaign suggested that Ms. Fenwick, at 72, was too old for the race and unfit to serve.

“Many saw it as ungallant for Lautenberg to have challenged this woman who was immortalized in Doonesbury,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “But he realized that, because she had become a kind of folk heroine, he would need to take off the gloves. It was a very hard-hitting campaign, and the age issue did influence a lot of voters.”

But that first campaign left a cloud that followed Lautenberg right up until his last race, when his primary opponent, US Rep. Robert  Andrews (D), ran ads suggesting that Lautenberg, at 84, was also too old for the job. The voters did not agree, and Lautenberg won that primary race, 59 to 35 percent.

Still, Lautenberg never became a senator’s senator, never learned when to stay silent or how to give colleagues the political cover seen as essential to maintaining a majority control of the Senate. He didn’t go out of his way to charm the press corps or rush the television cameras. 

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.

“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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