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5 Things You May Not Know About Sen. Frank Lautenberg

Sen. Frank Lautenberg speaks to members of the press in January.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Sen. Frank Lautenberg speaks to members of the press in January.

New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg wasn't a regular on the Sunday talk shows. He never ran for president or cut much of a national profile.

Still, the liberal Democrat, New Jersey's longest-serving senator, left his mark as a legislator on a wide range of issues, from transportation to public health to the environment.

First elected to the Senate in 1982, Lautenberg retired in 2000 after serving three terms. But he returned to the political arena in 2002, after a scandal led his former Democratic Senate colleague Robert Torricelli to end his re-election bid. Lautenberg stepped in for Torricelli for an abbreviated campaign, and then won another six-year term in 2008.

Here are five things you may not know about Lautenberg:

1. He made his fortune in data processing. One of the wealthiest members of the Senate, Lautenberg was a co-founder of payroll services giant Automatic Data Processing (ADP), where he served as chairman and CEO in the 1950s. He even served as a former president of the Association of Data Processing Services Organizations.

As a senator, Lautenberg sometimes boasted that like his onetime New Jersey Senate colleague Bill Bradley — a former pro basketball star — he, too, was a member of a Hall of Fame: the Information Processing Hall of Fame.

2. Lautenberg's father convinced him of the need for an education by taking him to the grim silk factory where he worked. The senator, whose father was from Poland and mother was from Russia, was proud of his working-class background in Paterson, N.J., and deeply appreciative of the opportunities America gave his immigrant family. He once told a jarring story about how his father taught him an important lesson about bettering himself.

"My father took me into the [silk] mill and took me by the hand and said, 'I want you to remember.' I was 12 years old," Lautenberg said in a 2002 interview for an oral history project. "He hated working in the shop and the factory. He said, 'You see how dark it is in here? Do you hear the noise? Do you see how filthy it is?' And he took my hand and he rubbed it along the silk fibers because he worked on a machine called a warp, and there were weavers and other trades. And he took my hand and he rubbed along the fibers, and it left a film. And he said, 'You must get an education. You must never work like this.' "

3. He had never ventured beyond New Jersey or New York City until he served in the military. Lautenberg served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, where he worked on telephone and radio communication infrastructure in Europe.

In a 2005 interview, he said that when he was initially assigned to Camp Crowder, Mo., for training in various military communications specialties, it was the first time he'd ever been outside his home state or the New York metropolitan area.

4. He was a very sharp-elbowed politician. Lautenberg had an epic rivalry with Torricelli, the home-state Democrat with whom he served for four years in the Senate. According to one account from a 1999 Democratic caucus meeting, Torricelli threatened to cut off a piece of Lautenberg's anatomy.

While Gov. Chris Christie was gracious in his tribute to the late senator Monday, the two didn't exactly see eye to eye. Lautenberg once referred to Christie as "the king of liars" and described a Christie decision in 2010 to kill a multibillion-dollar Hudson River tunnel as "one of the biggest policy blunders in New Jersey's history."

For his part, Christie in 2012 dismissed Lautenberg as a partisan hack. On Monday, Christie acknowledged those tensions. "It's no mystery that Sen. Lautenberg and I didn't always agree," Christie said. "But never was Sen. Lautenberg to be underestimated as an advocate for the causes that he believed in, and as an adversary in the political world."

5. He was a former smoker. A tobacco industry nemesis, Lautenberg helped write the law banning smoking on airline flights in 1987, during his first term in the Senate. He also helped write the law that expanded the ban two years later to almost all domestic flights and led efforts to ban smoking in federal buildings.

Call it the zeal of the converted: Lautenberg was once a cigarette smoker himself, as was his mother. Lautenberg's father, in fact, frequently admonished his wife for her smoking.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Charles Mahtesian is NPR's Politics Editor.