Back in the late 1980s, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg had a reputation as a man who got things done. 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 age 89 early Monday morning appears to have touched a particular nerve with a broad cross section of people, famous and obscure, partly because even though he was a staunch Democratic, Lautenberg helped people equally.
Lautenberg was reported to have 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.
On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Gov. Christopher Christie and former New Jersey governors Jon Corzine, Jim Florio, and Jim McGreevey were among scores of other political figures along with Lautenberg's wife, Bonnie, children and grandchildren who attended a funeral service at the Park Avenue synagogue in New York to honor the late senator.
Lautenberg’s partner in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), talked about this week’s Democratic caucus, which turned into each member sharing Lautenberg stories and jokes.
“Frank Lautenberg was a man for his time, one of the greatest generation and the last senator to have served in World War II.”
He also talked about Lautenberg’s Paterson roots.
“Anyone who knew Frank knows he was destined to make something of himself and he did. I will remember his life as a testament to what it is possible to achieve in America.”
Lautenberg’s children said he had recently begun to regret his announcement in February that he would retire and not seek another term, and discussed whether he could rescind it.
“On days that were good, he would say ‘I never should have made that retirement speech’,” daughter Ellen Lautenberg said.
They also joked about his garbled attempts to speak foreign languages to waiters in restaurants.
Daughter Nan Lautenberg Morgart joked about having opposing opinions from her father but the same trait of believing she was always right.
“We would argue and debate and dig in our heels and never bend,” she said
Rabbi Dan Cohen of South Orange Temple discussed his dealings with Lautenberg over the years, and the call he got recently, in which the senator wanted to talk about the end of life.
“Senator Lautenberg fought for the things he believed in, and sometimes he just fought because he liked to.” – Gov. Christopher Christie
After the service, his casket was to be brought to the Secaucus train station that bears his name, and transferred to an Amtrak train to take to Washington. On Thursday, a color guard ceremony was to welcome the casket at the U.S. Capitol, where Lautenberg would rest in repose in the Senate chamber for a public viewing.
On Friday, Lautenberg, the last World War II veteran serving in the Senate, was scheduled to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
From Paterson to illustrious D.C. career
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 and served in World War II. On the GI Bill, he attended Columbia University and earned a degree in economics.
He later helped found Automatic Data Processing, known as ADP. Lautenberg served five terms in the U.S. Senate beginning in 1982. He briefly retired in the late 1990s only to return in 2003 to replace Senator Robert Torricelli as a candidate in the 2002 election after scandal forced Torricelli to drop out. Republicans still recall that their candidate was ahead in the polls until Lautenberg entered the race.
Lautenberg was also a longtime leader on environmental protection, transportation, and protecting public health.
Dale Hardman, president and founder of the group NO-Gas Pipeline opposing the Spectra gas pipeline in Hudson County, praised Lautenberg’s opposition to the pipeline and proposing legislation to improve pipeline safety.
The senator was 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.
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.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Lautenberg one of the most productive senators in the history of this country.
Remembered by New Jersey officials
Lautenberg had deep roots in Hudson County, starting off his political career as a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. For years, he maintained a residence in Secaucus.
Gov. Christopher Christie paid tribute to the late Senator on Monday.
“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. 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.”
Jersey City Mayor-elect Steven Fulop praised Lautenberg’s efforts on behalf of regular people. “He lived an exemplary life, succeeding in business and government, but never forgetting his humble roots. I’ve admired his tenacity as he used his office to make America a better place for the poor and working class and for ordinary citizens who would not otherwise have a voice in government.”
“New Jersey has had no advocate as persistent as Senator Frank Lautenberg,” said Assemblyman Ruben Ramos of Hoboken. “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.”
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.”
Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith said, “He never forgot the working people of New Jersey, and always backed legislation for good jobs and better working conditions for all Americans.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.