U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, a five-term Democrat from New Jersey who, at 89, is the chamber’s oldest member, said he won’t seek re-election in 2014.
His announcement comes almost two months after Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a 43-year-old rising Democratic star, said he would explore a run for the seat. Others, including New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a West Deptford Democrat, also have expressed interest in seeking the post.
“I cannot believe that after watching Booker for the last few weeks he gets a free ride” from fellow Democrats to his party’s nomination, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan Washington-based political news service. “The national stage is a little bigger,” than where Booker has performed as a mayor, she said.
Booker led Lautenberg 51 percent to 30 percent, according to a Jan. 23 poll released by Quinnipiac University. While New Jersey voters approved of Lautenberg’s job performance, 71 percent said his age made it too difficult for him to do the work of a U.S. senator, according to the poll.
“While I may not be seeking re-election, there is plenty of work to do before the end of this term,” Lautenberg said in a statement announcing the move. “This is not the end of anything, but rather the beginning of a two-year mission to pass new gun safety laws, protect children from toxic chemicals and create more opportunities for working families in New Jersey.”
“Senator Lautenberg has been a strong model of leadership and service to me since before I even considered entering elected office,” Booker said today in a statement. “Since I have been mayor, he has been an invaluable partner in so many of Newark’s recent accomplishments and successes.”
Sweeney didn’t respond to a telephone call seeking comment. Other prominent Democrats potentially eying the seat include U.S. Representatives Frank Pallone and Robert Andrews.
The question is whether the Senate Democratic campaign effort has “attached their star to Booker yet or are they going to see what develops,” Duffy said in an interview.
The Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter and website based in Washington, rates the seat “safe” for Democrats, even after Lautenberg’s decision to retire.
“Republicans have not shown an ability to win a United States Senate seat” from New Jersey, said Nathan Gonzales, a deputy editor who follows the upper chamber of Congress. Clifford Case was the last Republican elected to the post from the state, in 1972.
“Do Republicans have a prayer here?” Duffy said. Republicans need “a candidate who can raise the money and be pretty acceptable beyond” the party’s base. Duffy said she rates the seat “likely Democratic.”
Lautenberg said he will travel tomorrow to Paterson, New Jersey, where he was born, for the formal announcement that he won’t run again.
Lautenberg enlisted in the U.S. Army at 18, where he served in the signal corps in World War II. After the war, he graduated from Columbia University, where he studied economics, receiving his degree from then-Columbia President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Lautenberg was a co-founder and former chief executive officer of Automatic Data Processing Inc., a payroll-services company based in Roseland, New Jersey.
He first won election to the Senate in 1982 and served three terms. He decided not to seek re-election in 2000.
Two years later, Lautenberg came out of retirement to step in as a candidate for the seat held by Democrat Robert Torricelli after the senator withdrew from a re-election campaign amid an ethics inquiry. Lautenberg won a fifth full term in 2008.
In the Senate, Lautenberg focused on transportation issues and sponsored a 2008 law overhauling Amtrak, the nation’s inter-city passenger rail service. He authored bills that increased transit spending in New Jersey by half and highway money by 30 percent. He also secured $500 million for New Jersey Transit’s Secaucus Junction Station, which bears his name.
Lautenberg pushed for the federal legislation that standardized the legal drinking age at 21 and lowered the legal threshold for drunk driving to 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content, from 0.1 percent. Lautenberg sponsored the law that banned smoking on airplanes.
“Throughout his time in the Senate, Frank has fought tirelessly for workers, veterans, members of our military and their families, and immigrants, and he continues to make extraordinary contributions to our nation’s safety, and the health and welfare of our citizens,” President Barack Obama said today in a statement.
“He has been a champion for New Jersey,” said Senator Robert Menendez, the state’s junior senator and also a Democrat. “I am sure he will spend the next two years doing exactly that.”
Lautenberg was known best in Washington as an advocate for New Jersey, said Brigid Harrison, who teaches law and government at Montclair State University.
“We’re going to see a lot of political wrangling here for this seat,” Harrison said by telephone. “There’s a lot of people waiting in the wings.”