Frank Lautenberg’s rise to wealth and prominence is a classic rags-to-riches story. Born in Paterson, N.J., the son of Polish and Russian immigrants who came to the United States through Ellis Island, his early life was unsettled as his parents moved about a dozen times while struggling to support the family. Lautenberg's father, Sam, worked in the silk mills, sold coal, farmed, and once ran a tavern. When Lautenberg was 19, his father died of cancer. Lautenberg blamed his father’s untimely death on the environmental conditions he faced and he later became a champion of protecting the environment. To help his family, he worked nights and weekends until he graduated from Nutley High School.
Lautenberg served in the Army Signal Corps in Europe during World War II, where he reached the rank of corporal. He was the last of the greatest generation to serve in the Senate. Following the war, he attended Columbia University on the GI Bill of Rights, which helped convince him of the efficacy of government programs, the hallmark of his liberalism. He later sponsored a new GI Bill for soldiers who served in post 9/11 military.
Lautenberg worked as a marketing specialist in Henry Taub's accounting practice. By sheer salesmanship, and later by strategic acquisitions, he helped the business grow rising to president and later CEO of Automatic Data Processing [ADP], which had the then unique idea of outsourcing payroll processing. Lautenberg, along with his partners, developed ADP into one of the largest computing services companies in the world, processing the payrolls of hundreds of thousands of companies. He rewarded his workers with a stock ownership plan and they rewarded their officers by refusing to unionize.
As he amassed a fortune, he entered Jewish life, rising to be national chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, then at the pinnacle of Jewish fundraising and president of the American Friends of the Hebrew University. His philanthropy in New Jersey and in Israel is vast. Numerous institutions bear the Lautenberg name.
He was proud of the Lautenberg the Lautenberg Center for Immunology and Cancer Research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which was directed by Lautenberg’s cousin Dr. David Weiss, a most prominent Israel scientist.
Denied a Jewish education in his youth, he learned basic synagogue skills only as an adult. But his Jewish identity was central to his philanthropy as well as to his sense of self. I was with him in the Choral Synagogue in Moscow during the peak of the Soviet Jewry movement when he received the “kohen aliyah” and told the Soviet Jews we met how as an adult he came to get a basic Jewish education.
As a Senator, he sponsored the Lautenberg Amendment which passed in October 1989, and facilitated the emigration of former Soviet Jews by relaxing the stringent standards for refugee status, granting immigrant status to those who could show religious persecution in their native lands. It has also helped Jews from Iran and people of many faiths who had to flee their homelands because of persecution.
Before running for office, Lautenberg served as a New York/New Jersey Port Authority commissioner (1978–82) and as a commissioner of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. Lautenberg, running as a Democrat for a New Jersey senatorial seat, beat veteran congresswoman Millicent Fenwick, then 72. He campaigned as the young upstart against a veteran incumbent who had long served in combat – he called her a national monument. It was a tactic that was later to be used against him as he developed seniority and aged in office. He was elected twice after the age of 78 and even after being diagnosed with cancer was reluctant to announce his retirement when his term expired in 2014. He was not pleased when Mayor Corey Booker announced his interest in Lautenberg’s seat. Lautenberg wanted to go out as he had lived -- on his own terms.
Lautenberg came to the world of public service from the world of Jewish philanthropy, the transition was natural. His values remained constant, only his stage had changed, his reach expanded, and so too, his potential impact. And he was always proud of what he had achieved as a Jew in the United States, proud of his service to Israel and the Jewish people which he saw as a seamless statement of all he held dear.
I recall his incredulity when right-wing and hawkish Jews challenged his pro-Israel credentials. Their “holier than thou” attitude baffled him and then annoyed him and they stood open mouthed as he reeled off the charities he supported in Israel, the institutions he founded, the trips he had made and the projects he had launched.
Over his first three terms in the U.S. Senate, Lautenberg built a solid record of accomplishment on a broad range of issues. He voted against the use of military forces in the Persian Gulf, a position that he defended even after the American victory by castigating Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for not honoring their commitments. He was best known for his anti-smoking campaign and for his advocacy of mass transportation essential to his New Jersey constituents. A New Jersey Transit Rail Transfer Station in Secaucus proudly bears his name.
I remember being with him shortly after Governor Chris Christie refused to spend the funds that New Jersey would have to contribute toward the new mass transit tunnel under the Hudson River. Lautenberg, who had worked tirelessly to amass the Federal funds, was seething. He well understood its implications for future generations.
Lautenberg retired from the U.S. Senate in 2000 at the age of 76, a decision he soon regretted. He was still vigorous and an ardent skier—in his eighties he was injured taking a ski run that people half his age would not dare—he missed the action of the Senate. Fate provided him with an opportunity when his fellow Democrat and acrimonious rival Robert Torricelli got caught up in a scandal and was forced to withdraw from the race. Democratic Party leaders turned to Lautenberg to preserve the Democratic seat. With his widespread name recognition and his own funding and fundraising prowess—Torricelli would not give him a penny of the $5.1 million campaign chest he had amassed--as well as assistance from the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, Lautenberg ran again and won handily, returning to the Senate after a two years' absence. With his loss of seniority, he was freed from leadership responsibilities and became an ardent critic of the Bush Administration, calling Vice President Dick Cheney, a “chicken hawk” for having avoided military service but sending others to die in battle.
Among his accomplishments in the Senate: he was instrumental in passing laws that raised the legal drinking age to 21, prohibited domestic-violence convicts from buying guns and required companies to disclose the chemicals they release into the environment, an early “right-to-know” provision that became a model for others. He helped Amtrak gain more than $20 billion in governmental funding.
He also was a lead champion of women’s rights, advancing laws mandating sex education and keeping pharmacists from invoking religious beliefs in order to deny service to women seeking birth control medications.
Lautenberg was a proud Jew. When President Reagan went to Bitburg, Lautenberg went to Germany. The day before, he visited Dachau with a survivor of the camp and from there he went to Munich to pay tribute to the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics. As the President toured Bitburg, Lautenberg went to the massive U.S. military cemetery at Henri Chapelle in Belgium, where Lautenberg laid wreaths on the gravestones of three New Jersey soldiers — one Jewish and two Christians. He had opposed the grand gesture of the Holocaust Memorial Council resigning to protest the President’s visit. Twenty years after its successful opening and 35 million visitors later, with Regan long gone and German Chancellor Kohl only a distant memory, Lautenberg’s caution seems vindicated.
I worked with Frank Lautenberg for many years, first on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and later on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Lautenberg served on the President's Commission on the Holocaust and was both a Congressional and a citizen appointee to the Museum’s governing Council.
We travelled together on business and he was a friend of many years. I could approach him to support projects and to help young scholars. He was generous in ways large and small.
Two personal stories come to mind that give a measure of the man. We first traveled together when I was in my early 30s. Given the imbalance of resources between us, Lautenberg graciously picked up the bills for our food. Young and somewhat brazen, I once reached for the check and he looked at me as if I had taken leave of my senses. I said: “At least let me take you to breakfast” and that became our custom, he would treat me to lunch and dinner, and breakfast would be on me. For many years even as he served in the Senate, I would get a call, “I’m running low on funds and I need someone to pick up the breakfast tab.” It became a running joke with us.
As I think of the government sequester, I remember the time that Lautenberg and I served together on a foundation board. One day the Executive Director came in and proposed a five percent across-the-board cut to meet a budget deficit. Much to the surprise of the rest of the board, Lautenberg immediately called for an Executive Session. He began the session by telling a story: “When I was a young man, I was broke, my company was broke; my mother and my in-laws were mortgaged to the hilt; so too, my partners and their families. We were going broke but we had a fantastic product. A friend put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘triple your marketing budget and suspend your development people.’ Either your marketing people will be able to sell the product and the company will make it or you will have to go bankrupt in three months. And that’s what we did. The result is ADP. Anyone who suggests across the board cut is not managing. Make strategic choices where to invest and where to cut.”
We came out of the Executive Session and told the stunned Executive Director that an across the board cut was unacceptable; decisions had to be made and justified. When the next meeting was held, strategic choices were made and the foundation was far stronger to the exercise.
Frank Lautenberg never forgot where he came from and how far he had traveled. He was grateful for all that he had been achieved and he knew that to those to whom a lot is given, a lot is expected. He welcomed that responsibility. He never forgot his friends and his stood proudly with his people.