Frank Lautenberg had not cast a vote in nearly two months when aides pushed his wheelchair onto the floor of the U.S. Senate in mid-April. Lautenberg, then 89, was clearly in ill health.
On Capitol Hill that day, Democrats were fighting to save gun control bills drafted after last December’s elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. In the massacre’s wake, public opinion had swung strongly behind new measures to limit assault weapons and strengthen background check requirements for gun buyers. Yet legislators were struggling to get a bill through.
It was a vote that New Jersey’s Lautenberg, known as the “swamp dog” for his love of a fight, wouldn’t miss. But it also turned out to be his last day on the Senate floor, and one of his last acts as a senator. From his wheelchair, Lautenberg shouted “Aye” as the handful of gun control measures came to a vote. All the votes failed to pass. But they served as a fitting coda to the career of the Senate’s eldest member, a Jewish senator known for his liberal activism.
Lautenberg, who died June 3, never shied away from his Jewish identity. Indeed, he used his extensive activism in the Jewish community as a launching pad for his political career. But, like his gun control votes, Lautenberg’s greatest political achievements once he arrived in the Senate were not in issues of explicitly Jewish interest.
Indeed, at times, Lautenberg seemed to take pains not to be reduced to being simply a Jewish senator, even as he took stands largely consonant with the consensus views of post-World War II American Jewry.
“He is a representative of the greatest generation and their values, which for many of us in the Jewish community are the values we subscribe to,” said Joel Rubin, a former aide to Lautenberg, speaking days before the senator’s death.
Lautenberg died of complications from pneumonia, according to a statement from his office. He represented New Jersey in the Senate from 1982 to 2001, and then again from 2003 until his death. He had announced in mid-February that he would not run for re-election in 2014. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will appoint a temporary replacement for Lautenberg, pending an October special election.
Before entering politics, Lautenberg served in the 1970s as a top lay leader of the United Jewish Appeal, the organization now known as the Jewish Federations of North America. He had also served on the governing boards of the American Jewish Committee and the Hebrew University.
Lautenberg was born into poverty in Paterson, N.J., in 1924. His father, a Polish immigrant, worked in textile factories and owned small candy stores. He even opened an ill-fated bar with a two-drink-per-patron limit. Lautenberg served in the military in World War II, the last sitting senator to have done so, and then went to Columbia University on the GI Bill.
After college, Lautenberg amassed enormous wealth as the CEO of Automated Data Processing, which he joined when the payroll-processing firm was a three-man storefront operation.
“He’s a great salesman,” said Stephen M. Greenberg, a longtime friend of Lautenberg, speaking days before the senator’s death. Under Lautenberg, ADP grew fast by swallowing up rivals. “He had very good vision and instincts,” Greenberg added.
After becoming a major donor to his local Jewish federation in New Jersey in 1974, Lautenberg was picked as general chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, then the nation’s umbrella group for Jewish federations. Just 50 years old, he was the youngest person ever to be appointed to the position.
At the same time, Lautenberg was building relationships within local Democratic circles, donating heavily to the state party. “He built a huge amount of goodwill within the party itself, which of course eased his way to a nomination,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
When Lautenberg launched his first Senate run, in 1982, his political ties and business success were at the center of his campaign. His Jewish involvement, though not disavowed, took a backseat. Greenberg said that political advisers told Lautenberg that putting too much emphasis on his Jewishness could run the risk of provoking anti-Semitism. “In terms of being a successful politician, the fact that he was the national chairman of UJA or that he had been involved in founding a cancer research center in Jerusalem… they weren’t helpful,” Greenberg said.
Lautenberg’s opponent that year was Millicent Fenwick, a blueblood Republican from New Jersey’s wealthy horse country. Fenwick was a legendary figure in New Jersey politics, a pipe-smoking former model with endearing aristocratic affectations. Fenwick, then a congresswoman, had not lost a political race since she won a seat on the Bernardsville Board of Education in 1938. In one debate, the 72-year-old chided the then-58-year-old Lautenberg: “How can you be so awfully naughty?”
“In terms of pure likability, Fenwick had him beat by a mile,” Baker said.
Yet Lautenberg beat Fenwick, boosted by a backlash against President Reagan, then two years into his first term amid a severe recession. “It was old money versus new money,” Baker said. “And new money won.”
Arriving in the Senate, Lautenberg faced a culture shock. He was the junior senator to Bill Bradley, a popular former basketball star who consistently outshone Lautenberg in the public eye. In the halls of the Senate, meanwhile, he had trouble learning how to work with his colleagues.
“The knock on him when he first came to the Senate was that, being a successful CEO, he thought he could be a successful CEO in the Senate context,” Baker said. “It turned out to be a particularly bad judgment. You can’t treat your colleague as an executive vice president.”
Lautenberg’s political relationship with his own Jewish background once he arrived in the Senate was complicated.
In 1981, just a year before Lautenberg was elected to the Senate, a South Carolina senator named Ernest Hollings had ignited a controversy by calling Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum the “senator from B’nai B’rith” on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Lautenberg, when he showed up in Washington, was eager to avoid such an easy caricature.
During Lautenberg’s first Senate term, a low-level employee with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Washington pro-Israel lobby, applied for a position on his staff. Lautenberg, according to Capitol Hill officials who knew him at the time, told his staffers that he did not want to hire anyone with an AIPAC background, because of his concern about being pigeonholed as the Jewish or the pro-Israel senator.
“When he first arrived, he insistently didn’t want to be known as the Jewish senator, but I don’t think he fooled anyone,” said Douglas Bloomfield, who was AIPAC’s chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill during Lautenberg’s early Senate years. Still, during his re-election campaign, in 1988, Lautenberg sent hundreds of thousands of yarmulkes to potential donors across the country, boasting of his sponsorship of a law that allowed soldiers to wear yarmulkes while on duty.
Lautenberg’s signal legislative accomplishments are not parochially Jewish, but they are connected largely to liberal issues generally of concern to American Jews. Lautenberg was the key backer of the ban on smoking on airplanes in the United States and a force behind major drunk driving legislation. He was a strong advocate of Amtrak, the commuter rail operator. And, as reflected in his final vote, he pushed hard for tougher gun control measures, especially after the Newtown school massacre.
One Lautenberg achievement did have a specific lasting Jewish impact. In 1990, Lautenberg backed an amendment to a Senate appropriations bill now known as the Lautenberg Amendment, which eased the way for persecuted groups to receive refugee status in the United States. The amendment has been credited with easing the immigration of Soviet Jews to the United States, allowing that community to grow quickly here as the Soviet Union opened its gates to emigration.
Lautenberg left the Senate in 2001, choosing not to run for re-election in what at the time looked to be a difficult field. Baker, who was working on another senator’s Capitol Hill office at the time, recalled speaking to Lautenberg at a retirement party soon after the announcement.
“It was clear to me that… he’d thought he made a mistake,” Baker recalled.
It didn’t take long for Lautenberg to reverse the error, running for election in 2002 after Senator Robert Torricelli chose to drop his own bid for re-election amid a campaign finance scandal. Lautenberg won that race and held on to the seat until his death.
Though Lautenberg was never the “senator from B’nai B’rith,” the organized Jewish community saw him as one of its own. On May 29, just days before his death, Lautenberg was honored at a packed gala benefiting Hillel, at Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel. Lautenberg canceled his appearance at the last minute, citing a chest cold. Billionaire Jewish donors Lynn Schusterman, Michael Steinhardt and Edgar Bronfman attended, as did Rush Holt, a Democratic congressman from New Jersey.
Jewish leaders speaking at the event praised Lautenberg as having helped shape their own commitment to Jewish life. Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said that Lautenberg spoke to Levin and other young Jewish activists in the 1970s, “inspiring us to a life of commitment to the Jewish people and Jewish values.”
Lautenberg was a member of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, a Conservative synagogue in South Orange, N.J. He joined the congregation in 1968 and continued to attend irregularly. “Here was this guy who became a senator… and yet he never forgot his roots, he never forgot where he was from,” said Rabbi Daniel Cohen, the synagogue’s spiritual leader. “He was an amazing leader that up until the end was working so hard to try and make things better for people…. What’s more Jewish than that?”
Additional reporting by Nathan Guttman.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.