Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) of Cliffside Park, who died on Monday, was 89 years old, the oldest member of the Senate, and the New Jersey senator who cast more votes in the upper house than any other.
As befits that status, he was old-school all the way; the Senate’s last World War II veteran, a member of the clichÃ©d but still extraordinary Greatest Generation, an old-fashioned liberal who cared deeply about such unglamorous but wide-reaching issues as gun control (he wrote a law that kept guns away from people convicted of domestic abuse and fought vigorously for gun control until the very end of his life); smoking on airplanes (he wrote the law that banned it), and drunk driving (he got the blood alcohol standard lowered and so kept some drunk drivers off the streets, and he spearheaded the drive to make all states’ drinking age consistent at 21).
He also worked on issues of particular concern to the Jewish community. His 1989 immigration legislation, called the Lautenberg Amendment, helped Soviet Jews and other persecuted minorities get immigrant status in the United States, and his work on following terrorists’ money trails led to large (if largely symbolic) assessments against Iran for its funding of murderers.
Much of Lautenberg’s drive came from his prototypical immigrant story. He was born in Paterson to immigrant parents and grew up poor – a smart, ambitious boy whose family moved around a lot and whose father died young. He was in the Army’s Signal Corps in World War II, went to Columbia on the GI Bill, helped build- Automatic Data Processing with the Taub brothers – Henry Taub, who died in 2011, lived in Tenafly – and made a fortune. He became a prominent philanthropist, gave dazzling sums of money to Jewish causes, and then entered the Senate, when he was 58. He served there for 28 years, spread over a 30-year period, marked by a short-lived two-year retirement begun in 2001.
During all that time, his connection to his roots was clear and strong.
“He was proud of coming from a city whose founder, Alexander Hamilton – one of the founders of the nation – believed that immigration would strengthen the nation,” said Leonard Zax, a lawyer and city planner who is president of the Hamilton Partnership for Paterson. “He was proud that his life was part of the continuum of history that began with Hamilton, who was the greatest of all American immigrants, and continues to the present day.
“He believed very deeply in the American dream, and he lived it,” Zax continued. “He took every opportunity to remind people that you can take the kid out of Paterson, but you can’t take Paterson out of the kid.”
Lautenberg grew up on Lafayette Street, in a three-story walk-up behind a tavern, Zax said; his own grandfather “built it with his own hands,” he reported. “This was the way immigrants lived – it was very modest, but they were a lot better off than they would have been in the places they fled in eastern Europe.
“Frank Lautenberg was always very excited about the diversity of languages he heard in Paterson,” Zax said. “They ranged from Italian to Polish to Russian to Yiddish. He noted that today the languages of the immigrants in Paterson are different, but the aspirations are very much the same.”
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Dist. 37) of Teaneck said that Lautenberg “is going to be greatly missed in New Jersey and indeed nationally.”
She saw him as a role model. “His legislative record is something that I’ve kind of mirrored or emulated in the state, and that connected us,” she said. She worked to get a lower blood-alcohol level content threshold established to prove drunk driving; “he’s the one who fought to withhold federal funding if the states didn’t get it passed.”
They worked on anti-gun legislation together, and “he and his office staff were great resources for women’s health issues,” Weinberg said. “Any time I needed backup for research I would reach out to them.
“He was a great legislator,” she continued. “He knew how to get things done in Washington. He was a great businessman, who helped launch a multi-gazillion dollar business, And he was a great philanthropist.
“He was a great war horse. He stood up for what he believed in. He could be a really rough person, a street fighter. You don’t see many of them any more.”
He was able to help her personally as well. “Back in the early 1980s, when my husband first was diagnosed with cancer, it was Frank Lautenberg who got me an appointment with the appropriate physician at Mount Sinai Hospital.”
There was a Jewish connection to that. “He established the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology at the Hebrew University Medical Faculty, and that is how he got connected with the physicians at Mount Sinai,” she said.
Pointing out that in February, when Lautenberg announced that he would not run again for the Senate, he held the press conference in Paterson, “I would say he loved Israel as much as he loved Paterson,” Weinberg said.
Former U.S. Rep Steven Rothman (D-9th Dist.) of Englewood remembers Lautenberg with respect.
“Along with people like former State Senator Matty Feldman, Senator Lautenberg was a Jewish trailblazer in New Jersey politics,” he said. “They were the first to disprove the pre-existing notions that a Jewish American could not appeal to the broad diversity of voters in our state. Senator Lautenberg was a true champion for New Jersey, but he was just as importantly a champion for those who needed his leadership throughout America and the world.”
One of Lautenberg’s concerns was terrorism, and the money trail that feeds it. He also cared about the victims of terrorism. One of his many triumphs was the legislation to allow Americans to bring damages against foreign governments that sponsor terrorism against Americans.
Stephen Flatow’s daughter Alisa, who came from West Orange, was killed by a terrorist bomb in 1995; she was 21, spending a semester in Israel, and on a bus on the way to the beach when Hamas murdered her. Her father, a lawyer, has been tireless in his effort to perpetuate her memory, help other victims, and somehow make Iran, Hamas’s sponsor, pay for the crime. (So far the victims’ families have won in court, but they have received nothing from Iran.)
Lautenberg was a partner in his efforts.
“Frank Lautenberg was in Israel when my daughter was murdered. He called me that morning to offer his help,” Flatow said.
“In 1996, we considered bringing a lawsuit against the Iranian government for its role in supporting the terrorist attack. Frank was very instrumental in getting the law changed to pave the way for such lawsuits. As a result, not only my family, but Sara Duker’s family and other American victims of terrorism, were able to bring suit again the Iranian government.
“Frank was always a vociferous supporter of terror victims’ rights, believing, as I did, that if you hit those people in the pocketbook hard enough and frequently enough they will get out of the business.
“Frank understood that Alisa was in Israel, being Jewish, studying Jewish material and texts at a Jewish seminary, and she was cut down for being a Jew.
“That rankled him.”
Flatow remembers Lautenberg as a man driven by the need to do the right thing.
“Frank took on some causes that were very unpopular at the time,” he said, citing his work to ban smoking on airplanes when smoking was considered almost as much a natural right as breathing. “And he was very concerned about the high rate of death and injury on highways caused by drunk driving. And he cared about terror victims’ rights. That seemed to eat away at him.
“He thought that he had to get at the cause of it – and that’s money.
“I will miss him,” Flatow said.
Arline Duker of Teaneck is the mother of Sara Duker, who was murdered in Jerusalem in 1996. So was her best friend and fiancÃ©, Matthew Eisenfeld, who as always had been right next to her. Like Alisa Flatow, the couple was riding a bus that terrorists exploded.
“Frank Lautenberg was so helpful to my family and me,” Arline Duker said. “At first, with moral support and kindness, and then in helping us with our lawsuit against Iran for sponsoring the terrorists and paying for those terrorist activities that murdered our children. He helped us push forward our lawsuit and obtain judgments against Iran.
“When we would go to Washington to speak to people, to try to get backing for what we were doing, Frank’s door was always open to us. He and his staff were really welcoming, and helped us fight for justice.
“The feeling I got about Frank Lautenberg is that for him it was about fairness and justice,” Duker continued. “He was very kind in his approach, and he was a real stalwart for us in that fight in those days.
“We showed the world that in some way the United States was holding Iran responsible monetarily for what they had done. That symbolic gesture, which did have money attached to it, was really important. It allowed us to continue the fight, and we still are fighting it today.
“He was a very a important figure, and on the right side of important issues. He was a real gentleman, and he was a fighter.”
In a statement, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey called Lautenberg “one of the Jewish community’s best friends,” a man who “never stopped working on legislation important to the country” but also was “a fixture during Super Sunday, entertaining the volunteers and always making phone calls.”