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Frank Lautenberg: New Jersey and the Senate Lose a Leader

Later in this space, we plan to discuss the many and varied failings of a proposal in the Senate to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act. Unfortunately, the proposal is the joint work product of conservative Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) and liberal Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who died two weeks ago and therefore won’t have the chance to fix the legislation that is so unworthy of his name.

But before we take on that misguided proposal, we wanted to pay tribute to the Senator’s larger legacy. Frank Lautenberg was a tireless advocate for progressive causes, who played a key role in many of the environmental and health battles of the last three decades. He was a relentless and effective advocate for the people of the “Garden” state, which in addition to its reputation for farming on lush land, also holds the tragic distinction of hosting more Superfund toxic waste sites than almost any other state.

New Jersey, once the third largest petrochemical producing state in the union, has a very large population in a small space. All of the elected and appointed officials who have risen to prominence there are highly sensitive to these issues and have frequently offered their leadership for the good of the nation as a whole. Indeed, it’s no accident that two former administrators of the EPA—Christie Todd Whitman, a Republican (and former governor), and Lisa Jackson, a Democrat, came from the ranks of the state’s government. Both worked closely with Sen. Lautenberg, who could always be depended upon to fight for more resources and better laws to address grievous public health hazards.

Over the course of roughly 28 years in the Senate (not counting a two-year gap when he temporarily retired), Lautenberg reshaped the nation’s approach to smoking, drunk driving, domestic violence, toxic waste cleanup, and community right-to-know. Legislation he introduced in the 1980s helped trigger the smoke-free revolution by prohibiting smoking on commercial airplane flights. The law marked a significant early defeat for the tobacco lobby, making tougher legislation at the federal, state and local level, possible. Lautenberg was also instrumental in toughening the country’s drunk-driving laws, establishing a nationwide .08 blood alcohol standard and a 21-year drinking age. He wrote and got passed legislation that prohibited perpetrators of domestic violence from owning guns.

On the environmental front, Lautenberg worked tirelessly with Sen. Bill Bradley and Reps. Jim Florio, Bob Roe, and Jim Howard to win reauthorization of the multi-billion Superfund program that harnessed the federal government’s power and resources to eliminate the worst threats posed by the thousands of dumpsites filled with toxic chemicals throughout New Jersey and the country. He was instrumental in winning passage of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act that was designed to prevent industrial accidents like the explosion at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India that ultimately claimed 3,787 lives.

Lautenberg was the last Senator to have served in World War II. After a three-year hitch in the Army, he went to school on the GI Bill, leading to a degree in economics from Columbia University. He took a job as a salesman for Automatic Data Processing, eventually becoming its CEO and building it into a payroll processing giant.

That made him a wealthy man, and in 1982, he put some of his fortune to work in a run for the Senate, taking on the very popular and very progressive Republican, Rep. Millicent Fenwick. (Yes, there was a time when Republicans were allowed to be progressive.) She was heavily favored, and held double digit leads in the polls, but he beat her on election night. He held the seat for the next 18 years, then retired, but was called back into service when the candidacy of Robert Torricelli imploded and Democrats feared losing the seat.

During Lautenberg’s first term, I happened to be working for Jim Florio, who was enmeshed in an epic battle to strengthen the Superfund law, setting deadlines for cleanup and increasing federal funding for cleanup five-fold, to $9.5 billion. The House Commerce Committee was heavily populated with southern Democrats and Republicans, who worked behind-the-scenes to undermine the bill. Many times, Frank Lautenberg rode to our rescue, insisting that mischief in the House be corrected in the Senate. The result was a tougher, better-funded, more effective program that accomplished the cleanup of hundreds of dangerous sites. This is the true legacy of Frank Lautenberg, not the eleventh hour, half-baked and “bipartisan” Vitter proposal that will require so much time and energy to fix.

With Senator Lautenberg’s death, we’ve lost a vital tie to the era when the nation earned its now deeply ingrained sense of its own heroism. From World War II to the Marshall Plan, Medicare and Medicaid, from civil rights, to women’s rights and gay rights, Frank Lautenberg’s generation transformed the nation and the world. He was consistently on the right side of that history, a leader who helped make the world safer and his nation stronger. We’ll miss him.

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