Sen. Frank Lautenberg
1924 – 2013
My first memory of Frank Lautenberg dates back to high school. Mrs. Forsman’s senior honors history class went to Washington and we were going to meet with Senator Frank Lautenberg, our state senator. Around the same time, legislation passed in the wee hours of the night. An amendment tacked on to a bill sold Linden Airport for $1. My father, Jack Elliott, an aviation columnist was livid about the deal. Ironically, my father and Frank Lautenberg were born on the same day, same year – January 23, 1924 – in New Jersey. Despite this irony, my father was not a fan and he challenged me to ask Senator Lautenberg about the Linden Airport deal when I went to Washington. The exact details have faded from my memory, but at the time they were as clear as day. The bigger challenge was not remembering the facts, but gaining enough courage to ask a question. I was extremely shy.
My high school class arrived at Senator Lautenberg’s office and I got my first lesson on how Washington works. We didn’t meet with Senator Lautenberg; we met with a very young staffer. I was disappointed about not meeting the Senator, but it was much easier to ask the big question to someone not much older than me. And so I did what I didn’t even do in class, I raised my hand. I was called upon and asked the question. The staffer had not a clue about what I was talking about and bumbled his way through an answer.
Fast forward, years later when I was writing my biography of Millicent Fenwick and Frank Lautenberg was still a senator. He was first elected in 1982. It was his first campaign and his challenger was the popular grandmother in congress, Millicent Fenwick. The pair couldn’t have been more different. Both were wealthy, but Fenwick was frugal and Lautenberg wasn’t. He was willing to spend his personal war chest to defeat her and he did.
One of his arguments against Fenwick was her age. She was 72 and he was 58. Lautenberg said she would be too old to have staying power in the Senate, yet he proved his own theory wrong. Lautenberg served in the Senate for nearly thirty years, but not consecutively. In 2001, he retired, but it didn’t last long. In New Jersey scandal always rears it’s ugly head. It did so in 1982, creating a vacancy when Senator Harrison Williams resigned due to the Abscam scandal. He was convicted of bribery and conspiracy paving the way for Lautenberg’s first victory. In 2003, it was Senator Torricelli who got caught up in scandal, this time it related to illegal campaign contributions. Last minute, Torricelli pulled out of the Senate race and Lautenberg was recruited by the Democratic Party to run in Torricelli’s place. Lautenberg did and he won.
During his long career as a public servant, Lautenberg was an advocate for gun safety, transportation, public health and environmental issues. Despite his health, Lautenberg made it to the Senate floor in April to vote in favor of tougher gun control laws, and, specifically stricter background checks. The measure failed, but his vote was counted.
Although Lautenberg died today, June 3, attention isn’t being focused on his long career and many accomplishments, but rather the politics of his vacant seat and the balance of power in the Senate. Lautenberg was a Democrat, and Republican NJ Governor Chris Christie gets to appoint an interim successor. Speculation is already going viral on what Christie should do.
Regardless of who replaces Lautenberg, chances are they will not be a World War II vet. Lautenberg was the last remaining WWII veteran serving in the Senate. Like Lautenberg, my father is also a WWII veteran. Unlike, Lautenberg, my father is still with us.