WASHINGTON — Frank Lautenberg, a self-made multimillionaire businessman who became a leading liberal in the U.S. Senate and championed smoking bans, gun control, airline safety and rail transportation, died on Monday at 89, an aide said.
Lautenberg, who was the Senate’s last surviving World War II veteran, died from from complications of viral pneumonia, the aide said. His office said in February 2010 that he had been diagnosed with cancer and would have chemotherapy.
A co-founder, former chairman and chief executive of the payroll services company Automatic Data Processing, he was elected as a Democrat by New Jersey voters to five six-year terms in the Senate.
He first was elected in 1982, running after incumbent Democrat Harrison Williams quit in a bribery scandal.
Lautenberg retired from the Senate in 2000, saying he was tired of chasing campaign contributions. But in 2002 he came out of political retirement at age 78, filling the seat of Robert Torricelli, who dropped his re-election bid amid corruption charges involving improper gifts from a businessman.
Lautenberg was re-elected in 2008 at age 84.
“Almost as soon as I announced my retirement I had pangs of regret,” Lautenberg told The New York Times in 2002. “There’s an old Irish saying that describes my philosophy well: ‘To rest is to rot.’”
Lautenberg had numerous legislative accomplishments. A former smoker, he convinced Congress to bar smoking on domestic airline flights and in federal buildings. He was a strong supporter of gun control and author of a 1996 law prohibiting people convicted of domestic abuse from having guns.
For years a leader on transportation subcommittees, Lautenberg obtained funds for Amtrak, the national passenger railroad, and for New Jersey’s commuter railroad to enable it to expand its network. A key rail station on the Northeast Corridor rail line was named in his honor.
He wrote the law that required U.S. states to set 21 as the drinking age as a condition of getting federal highway aid, a move he said had saved tens of thousands of lives.
He worked to block privatization of the U.S. air traffic control system and sought improved security for airports, seaports and railroads. He pushed renewable energy development and fought tax breaks for oil companies.
In 1996, Lautenberg worked for a law enabling victims of terrorism to bring legal action against foreign governments that sponsor terrorist acts.
He was not serving in the Senate when Congress voted in October 2002 to authorize President George W. Bush to launch the Iraq war but said at the time that he supported military action.
After returning to the Senate, Lautenberg was critical of the Bush administration’s handling of the war. He also criticized Bush’s Defense Department for awarding no-bid contracts to Halliburton, the company that Vice President Dick Cheney ran from 1995 to 2000.
Known for a feisty, combative approach in legislative battles and when campaigning, Lautenberg also was described by his Senate colleagues as affable and quick with a joke.
Lautenberg was born in Paterson, N.J., to poor Polish and Russian Jewish immigrants, moving often with his family when he was a child. He served in Europe during World War II as an Army communications specialist and attended college on the G.I. Bill.
He graduated from Columbia University in New York and in 1952 co-founded ADP, which became a large U.S. corporate payroll processing firm. It made him a multimillionaire.
Lautenberg often spoke of his belief that those who succeed financially in America, as he did, should pay their fair share of taxes and was a proponent of progressive taxation. He voted to repeal the Bush tax cuts on capital gains.
As a businessman, his contributions to Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern in 1972 landed him on President Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list.”
In 2010, his personal fortune topped $40 million. But his charitable foundation lost millions of dollars after investing with New York Ponzi scheme swindler Bernard Madoff.
“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg. His legacy is one of a distinguished and passionate legislator who fought fervently for the causes in which he believed. Today’s news represents a great loss for the United State Senate, the State of New Jersey, and the nation,” former Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine said in a statement Monday.
“I join with my colleagues in the United States Senate and with the people of New Jersey in mourning the loss of Senator Frank Lautenberg. Frank was a dedicated public servant and a gifted legislator whose willingness to cross the political divide and whose passionate leadership on environmental protection, transportation, and public health issues served as an example to all who served beside him in the Senate,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.