U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday, knew the pleasures of Atlantic City’s beaches long before he became familiar with the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.
As a child he sometimes stayed with his grandmother in a rented basement apartment in the resort, Lautenberg recounted to researchers for a 2005 oral-history project with Rutgers University.
“I thought I had gone to heaven when I arrived in Atlantic City, and I was so taken by the beach. I’ve been lucky — that noise you just heard was me knocking wood — because I would go out at eight o’clock in the morning to the beach,” the legislator said. “I’d come back, as the sun came down, roasted to a crisp.”
Lautenberg, 89, the last remaining World War II veteran in the U.S. Senate, died at 4:02 a.m. Monday from complications from viral pneumonia at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell. He was the oldest member of the Senate.
The liberal Democrat will be known for his efforts to ban smoking on commercial flights as well as establishing the national drinking age at 21 and setting the standard for drunken-driving at 0.08 percent blood-alcohol.
But locally, his influence can be seen in the region’s dunes, railroads and airport that he championed in Congress.
Lautenberg long supported public-transportation proposals. He helped return trains to the region when he chaired the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee in the 1980s.
Amtrak’s Atlantic City Express arrived in Atlantic City and its new $20 million train station in May 1989, after nearly seven years of being without rail service. While low passenger counts led Amtrak to drop service in April 1995, the $101 million in federal and state money spent revitalizing the rail line enabled NJ Transit to continue serving the resort and region.
Lautenberg also worked with state and local legislators in the early 1990s, helping to enable the sale of the Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township from the resort to the newly created South Jersey Transportation Authority and to set aside funds for the SJTA’s master plan.
Later in the 1990s, Lautenberg took the lead in battles to ensure the viability of the Federal Aviation Administration’s research and development facility in Egg Harbor Township — now called the William J. Hughes Technical Center — after a draft report suggested consolidating it with a center in Oklahoma City.
Lautenberg also worked to ensure the U.S. Coast Guard Training Facility in Cape May remained there, after Coast Guard officials contemplated streamlining some of its operations in the mid-1990s. The U.S. Coast Guard’s Cape May Air Station was eventually moved to the Atlantic City airport, where it was consolidated with a Brooklyn, N.Y., facility.
More recently, Lautenberg was one of the state’s legislators that pushed the Obama administration to respond to New Jersey’s needs as the state and region recovered from Hurricane Sandy.
Lautenberg had been sick for some time, missing a number of votes in December and January because of bronchitis and the flu.
He was away from the Senate for more than a month because of what was described as leg pain.
Lautenberg last voted April 17, when he supported his amendment to the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013 that would have banned high-capacity ammunition clips. The amendment failed, 54-46.
The senator also missed the annual gala in New York last week for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, during which he was honored for his contributions to the Jewish community and Israel.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, will now have the opportunity to pick a temporary successor to Lautenberg’s seat or call a special election. Without Lautenberg, Democrats hold a 52-45 majority in the Senate, with two independents who caucus with the Democrats. Christie is not obligated to name another Democrat to Lautenberg’s seat.
Some people expressed condolences through Twitter as news of Lautenberg’s death broke Monday.
State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, tweeted, “Very sorry to hear about the death of my friend Senator Frank Lautenberg. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.” New Jersey state Senate President Steve Sweeney described Lautenberg as “a dedicated public servant who fought vigorously for the people of New Jersey.”
Lautenberg grew up poor in Paterson, Passaic County, the son of Polish and Russian immigrants who came to the United States through Ellis Island.
Lautenberg’s father, Sam, worked in the silk mills, sold coal, farmed and once ran a tavern. When Lautenberg was 19, his father died of cancer. To help his family, Lautenberg worked nights and weekends until he graduated from Nutley High School.
He enlisted in the military at the age of 18, serving in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. Following the war, he attended Columbia University on the G.I. Bill and graduated with a degree in economics.
He joined with two boyhood friends from his old neighborhood to found the nation’s first payroll-services company, Automatic Data Processing. Lautenberg served as chairman and CEO, and along with his partners developed ADP into one of the largest computing-services company in the world, eventually employing 57,000 people worldwide.
After 30 years with ADP, he sold his interests and joined the U.S. Senate in 1982, besting Millicent Fenwick, a Republican, in a hard-fought campaign.
After re-elections in 1988 and 1994, he initially announced his retirement in 2000 and left the Senate in 2001. Democrats soon called on him in 2002 to replace incumbent U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli, a Democrat who was facing corruption challenges and a difficult re-election.
While Republicans balked at the late-September replacement, the state Supreme Court ratified it and Lautenberg handily beat Republican Doug Forrester.
He later won re-election in 2008, despite concerns about his advanced age. Lautenberg announced earlier that he did not plan to run again in 2014, but earlier this year aides dismissed any resignation talk and affirmed he planned to serve out his term.
Lautenberg resided in Cliffside Park. He and his wife, Bonnie, have six children and 13 grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Park Avenue Synagogue, Madison Avenue and 87th Street in Manhattan, according to a death notice issued by Joel E. Simon, the funeral director of Riverside Memorial Chapel.
The Associated Press and staff writers Trudi Gilfillian and Donald Wittkowski contributed to this report.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg
Some key dates in the life and political career of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who died Monday:
Jan. 23, 1924: Born in Paterson, N.J.
1942-1946: Serves in U.S. Army Signal Corps during and just after World War II.
1952: With two friends, launches Automatic Data Processing, a payroll company that becomes one of the world’s largest.
1982: Enters politics, winning an open U.S. Senate seat in a race against Millicent Fenwick.
1984: Writes bill, later signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, to withhold federal highway funds from states that do not set 21 as a minimum age to buy and possess alcohol.
1988: Wins re-election over Pete Dawkins.
1989: Is prime sponsor of 1989 law that bans smoking on all domestic flights of less than six hours.
1994: Wins re-election over Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian.
2000: Does not seek re-election and retires from the Senate at the end of his term.
September 2002: Enters Senate race after Sen. Robert Torricelli exits race. Defeats Republican Doug Forrester two months later.
2008: Wins re-election over Dick Zimmer after surviving a primary challenge from U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews.
February 2010: Days after the death of Sen. Robert Byrd makes him the oldest member of the Senate, he is diagnosed with lymphoma of the stomach. He undergoes chemotherapy and is declared in June to be free of cancer.
January 2012: In interviews, Lautenberg says he’s “entitled” to seek re-election even though Newark Mayor Cory Booker has publicly said he’s interested in running for the seat in 2014.
Feb. 14, 2013: Announces he will not seek re-election.
April 17: Returns to the Senate after being absent since Feb. 28 with pain and weakness in his legs. In a wheelchair, he casts votes for several measures, including a proposal to expand background checks of gun purchasers.
May 29: Stays home with what aides describe as chest cold, missing a New York gala honoring him for his contributions to the Jewish community and Israel.
June 3: Dies after suffering from complications of pneumonia in a New York hospital.
Source: Associated Press
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