Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who died on June 3 at age 89 in New York City, was the oldest sitting member of the Senate by a decade – California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who turns 80 in a few weeks, now takes his place – and the last remaining veteran of World War II. (Here’s a Wikipedia list of U.S. Senators by age).
Lautenberg, the son of a silk-mill laborer, served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, went to Columbia University on the G.I. Bill and then became a multimillionaire by co-founding payroll processing giant ADP. In 1982, in his initial foray as a political candidate, he upset incumbent Millicent Fenwick, a Republican, to win a Senate seat from New Jersey.
After three terms in the Senate, Lautenberg decided to retire in 2000, saying that he was tired of the need to continually hit up donors for campaign funds. It was a decision he regretted almost instantly, and when former Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli, beleaguered by an ethics investigation, decided not to seek reelection in 2002, Lautenberg jumped into the race as a replacement and won the seat.
Here are some facts about Lautenberg:
- Lautenberg championed labor rights and environmental safety regulations in part because his father had died of cancer in his early 40s, a fate that Lautenberg blamed on bad air in the mills where his father had worked. In 1986, he wrote legislation that, for the first time, required the compilation of a database of toxic chemicals being released in the United States, which spurred efforts by companies to reduce their pollution.
- He was a former two-pack-a-day smoker who became an early crusader against the dangers of secondhand smoke and helped start the movement to ban smoking in public places. In the late 1980s, as head of a transportation subcommittee, he helped pass a series of bills that prohibited smoking on airline flights, which he called “a victory for all people who say they want to determine what they want to do with their health.”
- He was a leader in the battle against drunk driving. In 1998, Lautenberg introduced a bill to require states to lower the legal threshold for intoxication from .10 percent blood-alcohol content to .08. The legislation became law in 2000, and researchers have found that each year it saves about 360 lives nationwide. In 2008, another law written by Lautenberg forced states to equip chronic drunk drivers’ cars with ignition lock sensors that would prevent them from starting if they detected alcohol on someone’s breath.
- In 1997, he managed to get Congress to pass legislation that banned anyone who was convicted of domestic violence or under a restraining order from owning a firearm.
- After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, he pressed hard for federal disaster relief, and warned that in addition to repairing the damage, it was crucial to strengthen infrastructure against future storms. “It’s everybody’s responsibility – we are all in this together,” he said in this speech.
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