NEW YORK/ NEW JERSEY (From CBSNewYork) – U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, the oldest serving senator and the last remaining World War II veteran serving in the Senate, died Monday at the age of 89.
The veteran lawmaker passed away around 3:00 this morning at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell due to complications from viral pneumonia, his office said.
President Barack Obama called Lautenberg, “a proud New Jerseyan who lived America’s promise as a citizen and fought to keep that promise alive as a senator.”
Speaking in Trenton Monday, Gov. Chris Christie spent six minutes talking about Lautenberg instead of giving a speech to a women’s conference. He called Lautenberg a “great example for the people of our state” and said the senator had 89 years of “fighting hard.”
“I think the best way to describe Frank Lautenberg and the way he would like to be described is as a fighter. Sen. Lautenberg fought for the things he believed in. Sometimes he just fought because he liked to,” Christie said. “I give him praise on a life well-lived.”
Senators paused Monday to remember Sen. Lautenberg, who was known for being a fighter. Even on the day he announced he would not be seeking reelection in 2014, it was clear from his remarks that leaving politics would be difficult.
“I am not announcing a retirement,” Sen. Lautenberg said Feb. 15. “I am announcing today that I will be continuing on my mission to do the right thing wherever I go.”
It was that vigor that kept Lautenberg going, along with his wife, children and grandchildren.
Lautenberg has had health problems in recent years. He missed the Senate’s January 1st vote to avoid the fiscal cliff because of a bout with the flu. In February 2010, he underwent chemotherapy after being diagnosed with lymphoma of the stomach.
In May, a chest cold kept him from attending a tribute honoring him for his contributions to Israel and the Jewish community. But he also boasted about jogging to stay in shape in his 80s. But recently, his ailing health was catching up with him.
He called out sick for months and missed key votes, but returned in April to cast votes in favor of gun control measures. Friend and colleague U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said Lautenberg’s strength could be traced back to his humble beginnings in Paterson, N.J.
“Never forgot it, never turned his back on his town, never turned his back on his roots — never, never, ever,” Pascrell said.
Lautenberg was first elected to the Senate in 1982 and served five terms, retiring in 2000.
Two years later, Lautenberg was elected again when then-Gov. James McGreevey tapped him to fill the seat that disgraced Sen. Robert Torricelli was forced out of. He was re-elected again in 2008.
He was the last World War II veteran in the Senate and held the record for the number of votes cast by a New Jersey Senator, his office said.
After casting his 9,000th vote in December 2011, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Lautenberg “has been one of the most productive senators in the history of this country.”
Sen. Lautenberg is known for his advocacy of gun control measures — having authored a law that prevented domestic abusers from possessing guns. And he fought to limit online and mail-order ammunition sales.
“Those who favor gun ownership, put that aside and stand up for the safety and well-being of our citizens,” he said in defending that issue.
Sen. Lautenberg also backed measures for improvement to infrastructure, and work to improve Amtrak.
He also sponsored a law that banned smoking on domestic airplanes and authored a law in 1984 pushing for states to change the drinking age to 21.
Sen. Lautenberg also co-sponsored the Tyler Clementi Bill, requiring schools to address the kind of bullying and harassment suffered by the Rutgers University student who committed suicide.
He also never forgot the victims of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Sen. Lautenberg was also never shy to speak his mind.
“Why, in America, we can’t stand up and stop this kind of hatred, violence, is beyond the understanding,” he said on one occasion in denouncing an anti-Semitic hate crime.
He also spoke out against GOP lawmakers for opposing better access to birth control for women.
“It’s time to tell those Republicans, ‘Mind your own business,’” he said.
The longtime Democrat seemed to enjoy taking jabs, calling out Gov. Christie for, in his words, “killing plans” for a new traffic tunnel to New York. He also suggested Newark Mayor Cory Booker was “disrespectful” and needed “a spanking” for jumping the gun and announcing plans to seek Lautenberg’s Senate seat.
There were less partisan moments too, like when Sen. Lautenberg blasted a man for breaching Newark Liberty International Airport security to kiss his girlfriend goodbye.
“He did a stupid thing,” Lautenberg said after the January 2010 incident. “He did a stupid thing when you looked at the tape.”
Lautenberg grew up poor in Paterson and had credited the G.I. Bill with helping him go to Columbia University after serving in World War II. Former Republican New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean said that made Lautenberg who he was.
“He was a fighter and he wouldn’t have been as successful in business if he wasn’t a fighter,” Kean told WCBS 880 reporter Peter Haskell.
Lautenberg got into politics after building a fortune as a founder of Automatic Data Processing, a payroll processor.
“He had two really tough campaigns against very qualified Republicans and won both of them because he fought very very hard and he fought all his life,” Kean said.
“I’m shaken by the loss of my friend, my colleague and a tremendous ally in the senate,” Sen. Robert Menendez told WCBS 880′s Steve Scott Monday afternoon. “While he looked frailer, I thought we’d have him for a longer time so I am taken aback by the loss.”
Menendez said he’ll remember Lautenberg as a tenacious fighter for what he believed in, a man with a good sense of humor and a dedicated public servant.
“Frank Lautenberg loved his job and he loved the people who elected him five times and who trusted him to be always on their side and he always was,” Menendez told Scott. “This is a man who, from his successes, is going to touch future generations as well.”
Lautenberg is survived by his wife, Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg, six children and 13 grandchildren.
Christie will appoint a successor to fill out the remaining year and a half of Lautenberg’s term.