Serving then along with U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, Lautenberg was considered amazingly accessible, listening to people and often finding practical solutions to problems people brought to him.
So Lautenberg’s death at 89 early Monday morning appears to have touched a particular nerve with a cross section of political people, partly because even though a staunch Democratic, Lautenberg helped people equally.
“New Jersey has had no advocate as persistent as Senator Frank Lautenberg,” said Assemblyman Ruben Ramos of Hoboken in a statement this week. “His aggressive pursuit of important initiatives from gun control to marriage equality has earned him a reputation as a fighter for social justice. He was truly an institution within the institution of the U.S. Senate, and his absence will leave a void that will not be easily filled. I will miss having the senator as a close ally in our collective fight for the best interests of our great state.”
Lautenberg was reported as having suffered a serious cold in the weeks prior to his death.
In February he announced that he would not seek re-election next year, invigorating hopes of the GOP to replace him.
Lautenberg served five terms in the U.S. Senate since 1982, although briefly retired in the late 1990s only to return in 2003 after he replaced U.S Senator Robert Torricelli as candidate in the 2002 election, a still-discussed political controversy especially among members of the GOP, whose candidate was ahead in the polls until Lautenberg entered the race.
Grew up in Paterson
The son of Russian and Polish Immigrants, Lautenberg grew up poor in places like Paterson before eventually graduating from Nutley High School, after which he joined the Army Signal Corps serving in World War II. Using the benefits of the GI Bill, he attended Columbia University and earned a degree in Economics. He later helped found Automatic Data Processing, known as ADP. He is well-known for his successful efforts in supporting public-transportation projects such as the rescue of Amtrak, highway funding bills, the Hudson Bergen Light Rail system, and the Frank R. Lautenberg Secaucus Junction Station—named in his honor.
“With the death of Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey has lost a powerful advocate of great integrity and the country has lost a person whose life embodied the American Dream,” said Democratic State Party Chairman John S. Wisniewski. “Raised in poverty in Paterson, Frank Lautenberg served his country in World War II, returned to become a titan of American business with the founding of ADP and then began a second career of public service in the United States Senate. Throughout his life, he used his position to defend the powerless and to create opportunities for those that society too often left behind. It was in his work in the U.S. Senate on transportation issues that I truly came to know Senator Lautenberg. The Senator understood the value of our transportation network to New Jersey’s economy and quality of life and was dogged in his pursuit of transportation funds to improve and maintain our roadways and commuter rails. He understood that such infrastructure spending helped create jobs and bring people into the middle class. Senator Lautenberg was also a passionate voice in defense of our environment and against the scourge of gun violence in our country.”
Lautenberg did a lot to help Bayonne.
“I was very sad to learn of the passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg. For three decades, he championed New Jersey’s needs and issues of national concern in the U.S. Senate,” said Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith. “He was a great supporter of federal funding for mass transit and public safety programs that have benefitted Bayonne and communities across the state. Senator Lautenberg, the last World War II veteran in the U.S. Senate, fought for benefits for the veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He never forgot the working people of New Jersey, and always backed legislation for good jobs and better working conditions for all Americans. Our thoughts and prayers are with Senator Lautenberg’s family.”
Senator Lautenberg was also a longtime leader on environmental protection, transportation, and protecting public health. His career highlights included passing the law that banned smoking on airplanes; authoring the law that prevented domestic abusers from possessing guns; writing landmark drunk-driving laws, including the nationwide .08 blood alcohol standard and the 21 drinking-age law; co-writing the new GI Bill for the 21st Century; authoring the “Toxic Right to Know” law to empower the public to know what pollutants are being released into their neighborhoods; and writing the law to create the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park.
United States Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, the last remaining World War II veteran serving in the Senate, passed away due to complications from viral pneumonia at 4:02 a.m. Monday, May 3, at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell.
Senator Lautenberg is survived by his wife, Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg; six children and their spouses, Ellen Lautenberg and Doug Hendel, Nan and Joe Morgart, Josh and Christina Lautenberg, Lisa and Doug Birer, Danielle Englebardt and Stuart Katzoff, Lara Englebardt Metz and Corey Metz; and 13 grandchildren.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Frank Lautenberg one of the most productive senators in the history of this country.
State Senator and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco called him an outstanding senator.
"I have known Frank Lautenberg for many years and am saddened to hear of his passing,” he said. “He was an outstanding senator who served the people of New Jersey well, and he will truly be missed."
Rep. Albio Sires called him a great leader.
"I am deeply saddened to hear about the death of my colleague Senator Frank Lautenberg," said Sires. "The residents of New Jersey have lost a great leader. My sympathies go out to his wife Bonnie, his six children, and 13 grandchildren during this difficult time. Senator Lautenberg was a leader on protecting families against gun violence, on environmental protection, on transportation, and on protecting public health. His leadership efforts in these areas will succeed him for many years to come. He was a champion for all people and believed that everyone should have the chance to realize their potential to the fullest. The senator served his country with great distinction as the last of World War II veterans to serve in the U.S. Senate. His legacy will live on for many years to come."
Gov. Christopher Christie paid tribute, too.
“It’s no mystery that Senator Lautenberg and I didn’t always agree,” Christie said. “In fact, it probably is more honest to say we very often didn’t agree, and we had some pretty good fights between us over time—battles on philosophy and the role of government, but never was Senator Lautenberg to be underestimated as an advocate for the causes that he believed in and as an adversary in the political world. I think the best way to describe Frank Lautenberg is the way he would probably want to be described to all of you today is as a fighter. Senator Lautenberg fought for the things he believed in, and sometimes he just fought because he liked to. He always reminded me that he was a kid from Paterson whose father died at a very young age, who served in the military and served his country, and then built a business which he was extraordinarily proud of, just as proud of his time at ADP as he was of his many years, nearly thirty years, in the United States Senate, and so today is a sad day for the people of New Jersey.”
Christie said Lautenberg’s loss was a loss for everyone.
“Whenever we lose someone who’s committed to public service and has been an honest and dedicated public servant as Senator Lautenberg was it’s a loss for everyone,” Christie said. “Most particularly it’s a loss for his wife Bonnie and his family, and so our thoughts and prayers are with them today because whatever loss we feel as New Jerseyans and whatever loss his colleagues feel in the United States Senate is minuscule compared to the loss that his family feels, his loved ones, and so I think it would be inappropriate for me to give any other speech today except to ask all of you to pray for the Lautenberg family today, to pray for the soul of Senator Lautenberg, and to give a prayer of thanks for his service to individual New Jerseyans and to our country.”
During a 2002 campaign stop at the Hoboken PATH station, Lautenberg recalled earlier times he’d spent on the campaign trail.
"I remember having a fruit fight down here [at the train terminal] with Steve Cappiello [former mayor of Hoboken]," Lautenberg said with a laugh. "We threw grapefruit at each other. We became friends later after I got elected senator."
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer expressed sadness at the loss.
“I had the great honor to work with him on everything from a rally on Pier A for marriage equality to advocating for Hoboken after Hurricane Sandy,” she said. “He was a true public servant and a friend of Hoboken. He will be sorely missed. Our thoughts are with his family, friends, and colleagues. Flags are flying at half mast in Hoboken today in his honor."
Lautenberg has deep roots in Hudson County, starting off his political career as a commissioner on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. For years, he maintained a residence in Secaucus.
Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli said he was almost at a loss for words because so much could be said about Lautenberg.
“Frank was a great advocate for the state and truly will be missed,” Gonnelli said. “The train station stands forever in his honor.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.