Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, a leading liberal voice in Congress particularly on transportation issues, passed away this morning “due to complications from viral pneumonia,” according to his office. He was the last World War II vet in the Senate, and at 89 years old, he was the oldest. He was the son of Jewish immigrants and it was because of “his hardscrabble childhood” that he grew up to become a “man well-suited to the state’s rough-and-tumble politics” who never lost an election, as written in The Star-Ledger newspaper today.
Sen. Lautenberg was also known as a prosperous business executive whose ADP company is the leading payroll service in the country. His voting record in Congress around wages showed that he supported fair pay for women, and his ADP experience certainly provided the data to show how unequal pay is – women on average make 77 cents for every dollar men make. He voted for the LIly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, and also the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, a bill from way back in 1996 that failed but would have extended federal civil rights protections to sexual orientation in the work place.
Sen. Lautenberg is also known for creating the legislation that banned smoking on planes, environmental protections for chemicals, and preventing those convicted of domestic violence from owning guns. He was a huge thorn in the side of the tobacco and oil industries and caused a lot of ruckus in opposing George W. Bush when he was president.
But he was best known for his work on transportatin safety issues, particularly on rail and ensuring that Amtrak and other alternative transit systems remained in place especially along the northeast corridor. This has been helpful for people who don’t own or can’t afford cars, but still need to get to work.
Sen. Lautenberg had fallen ill in recent months though and announced in February that he wasn’t seeking re-election in 2014. Political experts say that Senate Democrats loses a reliable vote due to Sen. Lautenberg’s death, which might impact upcoming votes on immigration reform legislation. Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican (who’s been pallin’ around with President Obama lately) will likely appoint a Republican for the interim. However, Newark Mayor Cory Booker is a strong contender to retain the seat, as early as November when a special election is tentatively scheduled.
Public Policy Polling said back in December that “the choice of New Jersey Democrats to be their next Senator is clear,” in reference to Booker, who at the time was contemplating a run for governor of New Jersey. But Democrats there picked Booker to win the Senate seat by a 59-to-22 margin.
If Booker eventually filled Lautenberg’s seat, he would become the ninth African American to serve in the Senate, the sixth African American elected (unless he’s appointed by Gov. Christie). If he’s elected or appointed this year, he would join two other black senators, Tim Scott, a Republican appointed to serve in South Carolina, and Mo Cowan, a Democrat appointed to serve in Massachusetts.