by John Schachter
When I was in eighth grade in 1978, my social studies teacher, Mr. Stoba, asked the class how long does a U.S. senator serve. While he was looking for the more straight-forward answer, “six years,” I had a slightly different view. It being New Jersey, I answered, “It depends on his crime.” But within five years our state had cleaned up its act to a large degree with Bill Bradley and Frank Lautenberg honorably and honestly representing us in the U.S. Senate.
The death of Senator Frank Lautenberg today has already gotten caught up in the latest political theater. Whom will Republican Gov. Chris Christie appoint as an interim replacement? Might he seriously consider appointing a Democrat (even Cory Booker)? Or will he tack to the far right in an attempt to burnish his credentials with the Tea Party wing of the GOP who have more sway when it comes to the 2016 presidential race?
But before we fall completely into the political morass of New Jersey politics, let’s pause to pay tribute to this unlikely public servant. I had the good fortune of voting for Lautenberg in 1982, his first time on the ballot and my first time casting a vote in an election, having turned 18 that year. Two summers later I served as an intern for the senator in his Washington D.C. office and got to see up close how this dedicated public servant, who had amassed enough of a personal fortune over the years to not have to work another day in his life, took on entrenched interests and tackled seemingly intractable problems – sometimes with a prickly personality that yielded results if not friends in Congress.
Frank Lautenberg is responsible more than any other single individual for the ban on smoking on airplanes that most people take for granted today. (Can anyone under the age of 35 even imagine there was a time not that long ago when people could smoke on planes?) The subsequent restrictions on smoking in public places and the stricter labeling restrictions on cigarettes also owe their existence to the dogged efforts of this former smoker.
Efforts to prevent gun violence – from keeping guns out of the hands of convicted domestic abusers to fighting to eliminate high-capacity ammunition magazines – are the result of Lautenberg’s hard work and dedication. And this New Jerseyan built a strong pro-environment record in a state long plagued by environmental challenges.
Long before he even entered politics Lautenberg accrued an impressive record of personal achievement. He worked nights and weekends while still a teenager to help support his family following his father’s death from cancer. He enlisted in the Army Signal Corps and served in Europe during World War II then, thanks to the GI Bill, attended and graduated from college before starting a company that earned him millions. Perhaps most proudly, he garnered a spot on Richard Nixon’s enemies list thanks to his fundraising for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.