At a time when the best that can be said about the members of the U.S. Congress is that they occasionally set aside politics for small compromises when backed into a corner, Sen. Frank Lautenberg was a rarity.
The New Jersey Democrat, who died from complications of pneumonia on Monday, served more than three decades on Capitol Hill. He did not waste a lot of that time dancing to the tune of political bosses as evidenced by his legacy that stretches far beyond the Garden State.
The 89-year-old legislator championed policies that have had a positive impact on all Americans, regardless of their political persuasions.
Lautenberg is credited with helping to reduce highway deaths because in 1984 he wrote the law that threatened to withhold federal highway money from states whose legislatures did not adopt a drinking age of 21. At the time, some had a legal drinking age as young as 18. Four years later, 21 was the legal drinking age in every state in the union.
He can also be credited with helping to create smoke-free facilities. In 1989, he was a prime sponsor of the law that banned smoking on all domestic flights of less than six hours. It was the first of several anti-smoking laws promoted by the former smoker.
In fact Lautenberg strove to help clear the air on a much grander scale with his advocacy for mass transit funding. He also advocated for a healthy environment by pushing for more Superfund dollars to clean-up toxic waste sites, something that was felt here in Delaware County from the Wade Dump in Chester to the radioactive Lansdowne property of a doctor who unwittingly contaminated his house and grounds by manufacturing radium-tipped needles for cancer treatment in his basement in the 1940s.
Lautenberg was also a longtime advocate of gun control and in April, despite being wheelchair-bound due to poor health, he returned to the Senate to vote in favor of universal background checks for gun purchases. He also voted for the reinstatement of the 1994 assault weapons ban that both major parties allowed to expire in 2004 — a presidential election year.
The last two pieces of legislation failed to achieve a super-majority despite popular support, especially for universal background checks, because of Democrats and Republicans who were loathe to part with the political dollars of the powerful gun lobby.
Obviously Lautenberg didn't care about what could well be perceived as blood money in light of the plethora of mass shootings in recent years, the most compelling being last December's massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The first New Jersey legislator to ever be elected to five terms in the Senate and the last of 115 World War II veterans who served there, Lautenberg was the oldest person in the Senate at the time of his death.
However he never felt impeded by his age, despite his political opponents' attempts to characterize him as a political dinosaur when he was tapped in 2002 to replace candidate Robert Torricelli after Torricelli abandoned his re-election bid for the Senate amid a campaign finance scandal. Two years earlier, after having served 18 years in the Senate, Lautenberg had retired. But, with just five weeks to campaign in 2002, Lautenberg recaptured his old post.
When he was re-elected again in 2008, Lautenberg noted, “People don't give a darn about my age. They know I'm vigorous. They know I've got plenty of energy.'
His 2002 last-minute win after a brief retirement wasn't Lautenberg's first upset victory. He first claimed his Senate seat in 1982 by defeating Republican icon Millicent Fenwick, who was satirized by Garry Trudeau as Lacey Davenport in the comic strip “Doonesbury.'
In many ways, Lautenberg represented the realization of the American dream. The son of working-class immigrants, he went to college on the GI bill after serving in the Army during World War II. Lautenberg founded a payroll firm and became a multi-millionaire.
But he did not allow big money to cloud his vision. At a time when many typically retire, Frank Lautenberg gave back and made the nation a better place for all Americans.