Frank Lautenberg, U.S. Senator From New Jersey, Dies at 89

Frank Lautenberg, the millionaire businessman turned U.S. senator who wrote laws that raised the legal drinking age to 21 and banned smoking on domestic airplane flights, has died. The five-term Democrat from New Jersey was 89.

He died today at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, according to a statement from his office. The cause was complications from viral pneumonia. In February he said he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2014.

As a co-founder of payroll manager Automatic Data Processing Inc., based in Roseland, New Jersey, Lautenberg got involved in politics first as a deep-pocket donor to Democrats, then as a candidate. His confidence in government’s power to do good stemmed from his belief that the G.I. Bill, which funded his studies at Columbia University after World War II, had paved the way for his personal success.

In the Senate, Lautenberg built a liberal voting record with transportation and the environment among his priorities. He won approval of a 1986 law requiring companies to disclose chemicals they release into the environment, a 1996 law banning gun ownership by those convicted of domestic violence and a 2000 law that pressured 31 states to tighten their definition of drunken driving.

Lautenberg “improved the lives of countless Americans with his commitment to our nation’s health and safety,” President Barack Obama said today in a statement.

Gun Control

No fan of air travel, Lautenberg once invited people to contact his “frequent losers club” with stories of lost baggage and interminable delays. He was a longtime advocate of spending more federal dollars on Amtrak and other intercity rail travel.

He continued pushing for limits on gun ownership after the issue fell out of favor among many Democrats. In a 2011 letter, he rebuked Obama for his “silence” on guns, a position the president changed following the December murders of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

In one of his final acts as a senator, an ailing Lautenberg made it to the Senate floor in April to support an attempted bipartisan compromise for new firearms restrictions, a measure that failed.

Lautenberg ran for office as a liberal and never tried to present himself otherwise, Rutgers University political science professor Ross Baker told the Associated Press in 2000. He called Lautenberg an example of a “limousine leftist” -- a politician who sides with the needy while enjoying a wealthy lifestyle.

Criticized Christie

The swelling federal debt and rise of so-called Tea Party activism didn’t alter Lautenberg’s view of government’s role. In 2010 he criticized New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, for declaring an end to the most expensive federally subsidized public-works project in the U.S., a proposed new rail tunnel under the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan, with an estimated price tag of at least $9.8 billion.

Lautenberg called Christie’s decision “one of the biggest public-policy blunders in New Jersey history.” Christie told New York Magazine, “All he knows how to do is blow hot air.”

When Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia died in 2010, at 92, Lautenberg became, at 86, the oldest sitting senator. Yielding little ground to age, he held a fundraising event in 2010 at a Lady Gaga concert.

He was the last World War II veteran serving in the Senate.

Wealth Estimate

The Center for Responsive Politics said Lautenberg’s financial-disclosure filings gave him a net worth in the range of $55 million to $116.1 million in 2010, making him the fifth-wealthiest senator.

His children and a charitable foundation he set up lost millions in the Ponzi operation of Bernard Madoff that collapsed in December 2008. The foundation, which backs Jewish and youth groups as well as schools, had more than $15 million with Madoff at the time of his arrest, according to a lawsuit it filed in 2009.

Frank Raleigh Lautenberg was born on Jan. 23, 1924, in Paterson, New Jersey. His father, Sam, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who worked jobs such as selling coal and running a tavern, died when Frank was 19. His mother, Mollie, opened a sandwich store to support the family.

After graduating from Nutley High School, Lautenberg enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in its signal corps during World War II. He graduated from Columbia in 1949 with a degree in economics.

Sales Job

Lautenberg joined Prudential Insurance Co. for training in sales. In 1954, he signed on as the first full-time salesman at Automatic Payrolls Inc., a payroll-management company founded in Paterson a few years earlier by Henry Taub.

The company became Automatic Data Processing in 1958 as it began migrating its manual payroll business to mainframe computers. The company went public in 1961.

In 1975, when Lautenberg succeeded Taub as chief executive officer, ADP had annual revenue of $150 million and 5,000 employees.

Lautenberg became interested in politics, contributing to Democratic candidates and serving on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In 1982 he spent millions to defeat two former congressmen for the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator from New Jersey.

The general election pitted Lautenberg against Republican Millicent Fenwick, the four-term congresswoman whose independent streak had earned her the nickname “the conscience of Congress” from Walter Cronkite.

Age Limit

Lautenberg wasted no time earning his reputation as a campaign bruiser, calling Fenwick -- then 72 -- “eccentric” and “erratic.” Lautenberg, then 58, denied that he was referring to her age or mental capacity. He won with 51 percent of the vote.

An early priority was instituting a national minimum drinking age of 21, at a time when many states allowed people as young as 18 to drink. President Ronald Reagan signed the act into law in 1984.

Lautenberg followed up with the measure signed into law in 2000 that used the threat of reduced highway funding to pressure states to adopt 0.08 percent blood alcohol content as the threshold for drunken driving. More than half of U.S. states were then enforcing a less stringent 0.10 percent limit. Within six years, every state had adopted 0.08 percent.

Brief Retirement

Lautenberg won re-election in 1988 with a campaign that belittled his Republican opponent, Pete Dawkins, as an insincere carpetbagger. (Dawkins said of Lautenberg, “I’m running against a swamp dog.”) He won his third term in 1994 by defeating Republican Chuck Haytaian, speaker of New Jersey’s state Assembly, who tried to remind voters that Lautenberg, then 70, had questioned the mental agility of 72-year-old Fenwick.

Lautenberg retired after his third term ended in 2001 and was honored by having his name affixed to a rail transfer station in Secaucus, New Jersey. He quickly regretted his decision to step down.

A bizarre turn of events gave him a second act. In 2002, New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli, a fellow Democrat with whom Lautenberg often clashed, was admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting gifts from a constituent. Sinking in the polls, he dropped his bid for a second term just five weeks before the election, and New Jersey Democrats tapped Lautenberg to be his last-minute replacement on the ballot.

He held the seat for Democrats, then -- at 84 -- ran for and won a fifth term in 2008. That year he was challenged in the Democratic primary by Representative Rob Andrews, who raised questions about Lautenberg’s age.

Lautenberg created the Lautenberg Center for Immunology and Cancer Research, a memorial to his father, at the medical school of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Lautenberg had four children -- Ellen, Nan, Josh and Lisa - - with his first wife, Lois. That marriage ended in divorce. He married his longtime companion, Bonnie Englebardt, in 2004. She survives him, as do his children; two stepdaughters from his second marriage, Danielle and Lara; and 13 grandchildren.

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