TRENTON, N.J. — The next time a flight attendant reminds you there’s no smoking or you witness a teenager getting carded at a liquor store, think of Frank Lautenberg.
The Democratic senator from New Jersey left his mark on the everyday lives of millions of Americans, whether they know it or not. In the 1980s, he was a driving force behind the laws that banned smoking on most U.S. flights and made 21 the drinking age in all 50 states.
Lautenberg, a multimillionaire businessman who became an accomplished — if often underestimated — politician, died Monday at a New York hospital after suffering complications from viral pneumonia.
At 89, he had been the oldest person in the Senate and its last World War II veteran.
He served nearly three decades in the Senate in two stints, beginning with an upset victory in 1982 over Republican Rep. Millicent Fenwick, the pipe-smoking, pearl-wearing patrician who was the model for the cartoon character Lacey Davenport in “Doonesbury.”
Possessed with neither a dynamic speaking style nor a telegenic face, he won his last race in 2008 at age 84, becoming the first New Jersey politician ever elected to five Senate terms.
“People don’t give a darn about my age,” Lautenberg said then. “They know I’m vigorous. They know I’ve got plenty of energy.”
Over the years, Lautenberg worked to secure hundreds of millions of dollars for mass transit projects in New Jersey and became an ardent defender of Amtrak.
He was the author of a 1984 law that threatened to withhold federal highway money from states that did not adopt a drinking age of 21, a measure that passed amid rising alarm over drunken driving. At the time, some states allowed people as young as 18 to drink.
By 1988, every state was in compliance with the law, which has been widely credited with reducing highway deaths.
A former smoker, Lautenberg was one of two prime sponsors of the 1989 law that banned smoking on all domestic flights of less than six hours, one of several anti-smoking laws he championed. It helped pave the way for today’s numerous restrictions on where people can light up.
Lautenberg had announced in February that he would not seek a sixth term.
A longtime advocate of gun control, he returned to the Senate in April despite poor health for several votes on gun legislation favored by President Barack Obama. He voted in favor of enhanced background checks for gun purchases and reinstatement of a ban on assault-style weapons. Both measures failed.
Using a wheelchair, he received warm greetings from several colleagues on the Senate floor.
“Frank was a passionate public servant who was not afraid to fight and vote for what he believed in. He loved the Senate,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “He retired once, but service called him back, and until the very end of his life, Frank made the trip from New Jersey to D.C. to fight for the issues he believed in and the people he represented. He gave everything he had to public service.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called Lautenberg “a patriot whose success in business and politics made him a great American success story and a standout even within the fabled Greatest Generation.”
Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a frequent target of Lautenberg’s criticism, said: “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.”
“I give him praise for a life well-lived,” Christie added.
Christie will appoint a successor. Newark Mayor Cory Booker had announced his intention to run when the seat is up in 2014, and has raised some $2 million.
A special election may be held in November, or at another date selected by the governor, or the appointed successor could serve until the 2014 election. Because New Jersey laws are vague on the matter and because of the state’s history of litigation over election issues, the courts might be asked to sort it out.
Along with Lautenberg’s legislative accomplishments, he had a string of electoral coups, including his upset over Fenwick, whom he called “the most popular candidate in the country,” and a victory in a strange, abbreviated, back-from-retirement campaign 20 years later.
He initially retired in 2000 after 18 years in the Senate, saying he did not have the drive to raise money for a fourth campaign. He served on the boards of three companies, two graduate schools and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
But New Jersey Democrats recruited Lautenberg out of retirement in 2002 as a replacement for Robert Torricelli, who had abandoned his re-election bid just five weeks before Election Day in a campaign finance scandal.
Republicans went to court to prevent what they called the Democratic Party’s ballot “switcheroo.” When that failed, they attacked Lautenberg as a political relic ill-suited for dangerous times.
But Lautenberg surged to an easy win over Republican Douglas Forrester and returned to the Senate in 2003 at age 78, resuming his role as a leading liberal.
He was the headlines in December 2008 — this time as an apparent victim.
After Bernard Madoff was accused of running a $50 billion fraud scheme, Lautenberg’s family foundation said the bulk of its investments were managed by him. A lawyer for the foundation declined to discuss the amount of any possible losses, but tax records in 2006 indicated Madoff managed more than 90 percent of the foundation’s nearly $14 million in assets.
Lautenberg first gained prominence as chairman and CEO of Automatic Data Processing, a New Jersey-based payroll services company he had founded with two friends in 1952. It became one of the largest such companies in the world.
He was first elected to the Senate in 1982, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Lautenberg managed to carve out influence on the environment and transportation, two issues that matter greatly to New Jersey, the nation’s most densely populated state.
He worked to secure money mass transit projects in the state, which he said would reduce pollution and traffic congestion.
Lautenberg often attacked tobacco companies’ advertising tactics. During a 1989 debate over smoking, when tobacco-state lawmakers asked what would become of tobacco farmers, Lautenberg scoffed, “Grow soybeans or something.”
Another frequent target was the gun industry. “Common sense tells you that there are more than enough dangerous weapons on the streets,” said Lautenberg, who sponsored numerous gun-control measures, a few of which were enacted.
He also spent much of his political career pushing for funding for Superfund, a program that pays for cleanup of environmentally hazardous sites.
Lautenberg was a reliable vote for traditional Democratic policies, though he bucked President Bill Clinton in 1993 on the budget because he said it raised taxes and didn’t cut spending enough. He also voted against Clinton on the North American Free Trade Agreement, opposed by the staunch labor allies Lautenberg had come to depend on.
Later in his career, he became a foil for Christie.
In 2012, Christie called Lautenberg a “partisan hack” and an “embarrassment” and said it was time for him to retire. Lautenberg called Christie “the name-calling governor” and “the king of liars.”
Lautenberg had health problems in recent years. He had been diagnosed in February 2010 with B-cell lymphoma of the stomach and underwent chemotherapy until he was declared in June 2010 to be cancer-free.
For his first 14 years in the Senate, he was often in the shadow of New Jersey’s other senator, Bill Bradley, a former pro basketball player and 2000 presidential candidate. But he proved a formidable and bruising foe.
During his first Senate election victory in 1982, Lautenberg won 51 percent of the vote against Fenwick. The win, financed largely with $3 million of Lautenberg’s own fortune, was a shocker.
Fenwick was 72, and Lautenberg questioned her “capability” to be a senator. Some observers seemed to think he was going after her age — a fact that was noted 26 years later when he ran for re-election at 84.
“It’s hard when your own words come back to haunt you, isn’t it, Mr. Lautenberg?” said an ad for his Democratic primary opponent, Rep. Robert Andrews, whom he defeated handily before beating former Rep. Dick Zimmer in the general election.
Born in urban Paterson, N.J., the son of Polish and Russian Jewish immigrants, Lautenberg often recounted what government did for him — and what it could have done to help his widowed mother as she struggled to pay his father’s medical bills.
“We want to help. That’s government’s role,” Lautenberg said in 1994.
He served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II. With the help of the G.I. Bill, he received an undergraduate degree in economics from Columbia University.
Lautenberg, who lived in Cliffside Park, N.J., is survived by his wife, Bonnie, and four children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1988.