WASHINGTON — Sen. Frank Lautenberg said his decision not to run for re-election next year was driven by a desire to spend more time with his wife and grandchildren rather than raising money for another campaign.
“You know I don’t like fundraising,” the 89-year-old millionaire, who has contributed extensively to his own campaigns in winning a record five terms representing New Jersey, told The Record in his office Thursday afternoon.
Lautenberg insisted he had not been pressured by the Senate’s leadership, a potential challenge in the Democratic primary from Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, or concerns about his health.
He admitted he was “really knocked out” by a bout of flu and bronchitis in December that forced him to miss work for several weeks and left him weakened and walking with a cane, but he said he was getting stronger and would soon be “caneless.”
Local officials remembered Lautenberg Thursday after he made his announcement.
State Senator Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said one of Lautenberg’s many accomplishments was changing the attitudes for people regarding smoking in public places.
“It was a cultural change that really goes beyond legislation, and we’re better for it,” he said.
Whelan also said he’ll remember Lautenberg always had a soft spot for Atlantic City, since it was a destination that his family vacationed when he was a child.
“His family would rent a basement apartment, because that’s what they could afford,” he said. “They would spend a week at the shore like so many other people in Jersey.”
Congressman Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, said in a statement that Lautenberg was a friend, a tireless advocate, and a great partner to work with on issues facing the state.
“Whether it was protecting our tourism-based economy or ensuring critical jobs at the FAA Technical Center and Coast Guard Training Center were not sent out-of-state, Senator Lautenberg was always willing to listen to my concerns and work together on the solutions,” he said. “Whenever I called, he would put New Jersey’s interests before party politics. I thank him for his service and wish him and his family all the best.”
Lautenberg would not say who he would support as a successor. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-6th., is a likely candidate.
“I intend to keep working. We have an active staff, and a productive office,” Lautenberg said. He was recently named chairman of an appropriations subcommittee that sets the budget for financial regulatory agencies, and intends to be active in the fight to pass new gun control laws and overhaul chemical use in consumer products before his term ends in 2015.
Lautenberg has been down this road before, deciding in 1999 not to seek another term in 2000. He quickly regretted it, and jumped at the chance to come back to the Senate in 2002when Sen. Robert Torricelli had to quit his re-election campaign under an ethical cloud.
“It did not come easy,” Lautenberg said of his decision this time. “It was not a flip of the coin. But it was based on family needs.”
He said he had urged his staff to start planning for another campaign even as he weighed retirement. He made the decision “in the last few days” though he said he had “been thinking about it for a long time.”
“I have 10 grandchildren, and I never see them,” he said.
When his term ends, Lautenberg said he will have been in the Senate for 30 years, about the same length of time he was in the business world. He was a co-founder of the payroll processing company ADP, which he proudly says has grown to employ 50,000 people.
Lautenberg will formally announce his retirement today in Paterson, N.J., where he was born.
In the interview he cited his humble roots as the son of a mill worker. He said he wanted to finish his term, rather than retire immediately, because he wants to ensure the landmark health insurance overhaul is put in place.
“I’ve done a lot of the things I wanted to do,” he said, noting that the 2010 health insurance overhaul would prevent something he witnessed as a child, when his father’s two-year bout with cancer bankrupted his mother and forced the family to move from town to town in North Jersey.
“I’m also one of the few people here who has had success against the NRA,” he said, citing two laws he authored on gun control. One eliminated a loophole in background checks for gun show sales, a provision that later expired when Congress failed to renew it.
The other bars gun ownership by people with domestic violence convictions.
“More than 200,000 abusers have been denied gun permits,” he said.
In a statement, President Barack Obama called Lautenberg “a steadfast champion of the people of New Jersey. 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.”
Booker praised Lautenberg for his service to the city and state following Lautenberg’s announcement.
But Booker is not commenting on how the decision by his fellow Democrat will affect his own plans to seek the U.S. Senate seat.
Booker said Thursday that Lautenberg has been a “strong model of leadership” for him since entering office.
More recently the mayor angered the 89-year-old senator by declaring in December his intention to seek the seat in 2014 — even before Lautenberg had announced his own plans.
In his statement, Booker said Lautenberg has championed New Jersey for decades and helped Newark “endure difficult days.”
Press staff writer Joel Landau contributed to this report.