Frank Lautenberg, the son of a Paterson, New Jersey, silk mill worker and the last World War II veteran serving in the US Senate, took his cues from another political time: a time when liberals were bold and unapologetic, a time when it was understood that government could and should do great things.
One of the few members of Congress who could remember listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the radio and going to college on the initial GI Bill, Lautenberg served five terms in the US Senate as a champion of great big infrastructure investments—especially for Amtrak and urban public transportation—great big environmental regulations, great big consumer protections and great big investigations of wrongdoing by Wall Street.
It can fairly be said that the New Jersey senator, who died Monday at age 89, kept the New Deal flame lit. Indeed, one of the last major pieces of legislation proposed to renew one of FDR’s greatest legacies: the Works Progress Administration, which provided public-works employment for millions of Americans during the Great Depression that defined Lautenberg’s youth.
When he introduced his “21st Century WPA Act” two years ago, Lautenberg declared, “Our economy will not recover and our nation will not move forward until we put jobs first. Establishing a 21st Century Works Progress Administration would immediately put Americans to work rebuilding our nation and strengthening our communities. Across the country, we continue to benefit from projects completed under President Roosevelt’s WPA, which employed more than three million Americans during a time of great need. A 21st Century WPA would tackle our nation’s job crisis head-on and accelerate our economic recovery.”
A self-made millionaire who paid his own way into politics at age 58, Lautenberg never forgot that government programs lifted him out of poverty. And he refused to bend to the austerity fantasies of official Washington. Indeed, he attacked them with gusto, especially after returning to the Senate in 1983 following a bizarre turn of political events in the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency.
First elected to the Senate in 1982, Lautenberg retired in 2000, saying he was sick of the money chase required to fund big-budget campaigns. Two years later, New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli, a more centrist Democrat with whom Lautenberg had frequently sparred, was hit with a corruption scandal in the midst of the 2002 campaign. Torricelli had to quit, creating a circumstance where it looked as if the Republicans would take the seat virtually by default. But Lautenberg elbowed his way into the race, fought in the courts for a place on the ballot and was easily reelected to the Senate at age 78.
While other Democrats were still trying to figure out how to take on the Bush administration, Lautenberg arrived ready for a fight—calling for investigations into the Bush-Cheney White House and launching blistering attacks on political cronyism. He was, as well, an ardent foe of the social-conservative policies of the administration—and of Democrats who were willing to compromise with the White House. Unabashedly pro-choice and pro–LGBT rights, Lautenberg was a leading champion of gun control who, when his long battle with cancer and related ailments took a turn for the worse this spring, said that one of his biggest regrets was missing the debates over new gun-control legislation because “my victories over the gun lobby are among my proudest accomplishments.” The senator was, as well, a fierce defender of affirmative action—earning the admiration of the NAACP, along with a 100 percent rating for his votes.
Lautenberg’s liberalism was robust. Unlike many members of the Democratic Caucus, his commitment to the ideology was of the broad-spectrum variety. Yes, Lautenberg was one of the most committed social liberals in the Senate. But like his old friend Paul Wellstone, Lautenberg was equally committed to economic liberalism.
The New Jersey senator sided with organized labor and earned top ratings from the Drum Major Institute for his battles on behalf of working families. A businessman who never forgot that his dad sweated in the silk mills and died young, Lautenberg fought for minimum-wage hikes, factory safety and fair trade—a commitment that led him to break with the Clinton administration to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement. But his biggest fight was for a renewal of the New Deal commitment of government to invest in job creation.
Lautenberg really did believe in putting the government to work on the task of putting people to work. His legislative record was packed with proposals for infrastructure investment and jobs programs—including the recent American Infrastructure Investment Fund Act of 2013, with its plan for a $5 billion fund to incentivize private, state and regional investments in transportation projects around the country by providing eligible products with financial assistance.
Even after he announced that he would retire in 2015, at the end of his current term (which will now be filled by an interim senator appointed by Republican Governor Chris Christie), Lautenberg kept that New Deal flame lit. Barely a week before his death, the senator was one of the first members of Congress to respond to the bridge collapse of the Interstate 5 in Washington State.
“The bridge collapse in Washington State is simply unacceptable. Families in America should not have to worry that the bridges they cross are unstable,” he said. “Far too many bridges across the country and in my home state of New Jersey are aging and in urgent need of repair. This scary bridge collapse shows why the Senate should act quickly to pass my bill to strengthen America’s crumbling infrastructure, create jobs and boost our economy."
Frank Lautenberg, who made his fortune in the private sector before ever considering a political career, had no patience with those who would limit the ability of government to respond to the physical crisis of a bridge collapsing or the human crisis of widespread unemployment. Like FDR, he understood the power of government to renew the economy.
To a greater extent than all but a few in Congress, he kept alive the New Deal faith that Roosevelt articulated in one of those “fireside chats” Lautenberg listened to as child growing up poor in mill towns of north Jersey: “To those who say that our expenditures for Public Works and other means for recovery are a waste that we cannot afford, I answer that no country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources,” FDR said. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order. Some people try to tell me that we must make up our minds that for the future we shall permanently have millions of unemployed just as other countries have had them for over a decade. What may be necessary for those countries is not my responsibility to determine. But as for this country, I stand or fall by my refusal to accept as a necessary condition of our future a permanent army of unemployed.”