Senator Frank Lautenberg, a multimillionaire New Jersey businessman and liberal who was called out of retirement for a second tour of duty in Congress, has died at age 89 from complications of viral pneumonia.
Lautenberg was known as a public health advocate, who fought for gun control and stronger regulations on smoking and drinking.
"The fact that you can't smoke on an airplane, that was because of Frank Lautenberg," Brigid Harrison, professor of Political Science and Law at Monclair State University, told WNYC's Brian Lehrer. "And things that are rather commonplace today . . . actually were kind of Bloombergian revolutionary" when Lautenberg first proposed them.
Lautenberg was first elected to the Senate in 1982, and was re-elected to a fifth term in Congress in 2008. He was the last World War II veteran serving in the U.S. Senate and held the record for most number of votes cast by a New Jersey Senator.
President Barack Obama described Lautenberg as a "proud New Jerseyan." Governor Chris Christie, speaking at the New Jersey Governor's Conference for Women, said Lautenberg was "an advocate for the causes he believed in." Senator Charles Schumer called him a "relentless warrior." And Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said he was a "true champion for those who need a voice in Washington."
New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell, a fellow Democrat, knew and worked with Lautenberg for decades. "We didn't agree on everything, but that was immaterial, because you were talking to a real human being who waned to change things for the better," he said on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show.
Lautenberg grew up poor in Paterson, where his father worked in a silk factory and died at 43. He used the G.I. Bill to attend Columbia University and went on to found the multimillion-dollar payroll company Automatic Data Processing.
Lautenberg had health problems in recent years. A bout with the flu caused him to miss the Senate's Jan. 1, 2013 vote to avoid the fiscal cliff of rising taxes and falling government spending.
He had been diagnosed in February 2010 with lymphoma of the stomach and underwent chemotherapy for the next few months.
He was principal sponsor of a law banning smoking on domestic airline flights.
Lautenberg's seat will be filled by Republican Governor Chris Christie.
To hear an obituary by WNYC's Ilya Marritz, click the audio link above.