Very seldom are voters not disappointed: Campaign promises are routinely broken and seemingly idealistic politicians often sell out. Progressives’ hopes tend to be more regularly and bitterly disappointed than most.
So perhaps the greatest achievement of the late Senator Frank Lautenberg is that as a politician, he did not disappoint. Indeed, he greatly exceeded expectations.
The advent of Lautenberg’s political career was far from promising. When first elected to the U.S. Senate from New Jersey in 1982, the 58-year-old multi-millionaire had never held elective office. He was said to have bought his way into the Senate. He seemed like just another out-of-touch and ego-driven rich man, all but certain to lose after a single term.
But his critics had underestimated him, and not for the last time. Though Lautenberg was a wealthy man, he had been born in Paterson to a desperately poor immigrant Polish Jewish family in 1924, long before there was any such thing as a social safety net.
Lautenberg saw how FDR’s New Deal had transformed America for the better. A member of the Greatest Generation who fought World War II, the young vet returned to attend college on the G.I. Bill. He always gave due credit to government programs for his success and wanted others to benefit from them as well. He understood, down to his capillaries, the basic progressive concept of solidarity. You don’t kick away the ladder that let you climb to the top; you leave it there for the next guy or gal — preferably in better condition than you found it.
While other New Jersey Democrats won fawning media coverage by embracing fashionable right-of-center policies, Lautenberg quietly set about working to protect the health and economic interests of his constituents. The man from a state that, famously, “don’t get no respect,” became perhaps the nation’s most underappreciated yet consistently progressive senator.
Lautenberg’s list of accomplishments is long, distinguished, and diverse. He is responsible for legislation that bans smoking on commercial flights; for the Ryan White Care Act, which provides services for AIDS patients; and for environmental laws that ban offshore dumping, clean up hazardous wastes, and protect us all from toxic chemicals. He was a stalwart defender of labor and of a woman’s right to choose, and a lifelong proponent of gun control. Appropriately for a senator from a commuter state, he strongly supported rails, roads, and transit. He fought hard against Republican attempts to defund Amtrak and secured billions of dollars in highway and transit infrastructure projects for his home state. One of his last major efforts was a return to the New Deal politics that was his most basic creed when, two years ago, he introduced a bill calling for a 21st Century Works Progress Administration.
Lautenberg’s continuing popularity with New Jersey voters frequently flummoxed and frustrated his critics. The man had all the charisma of a doorknob. In a clubby institution like the Senate, he was not clubbable; often a crotchety S.O.B., he feuded openly even with fellow Jersey Democrats like former senator Robert Torricelli and Newark mayor Cory Booker. Above all, conventional wisdom pilloried Lautenberg as “too liberal.” Like clockwork every six years, the political and media establishment declared his re-election prospects to be weak. The GOP ran one high-profile, well-funded candidate after another against him — and every time, Lautenberg kicked said candidate to the curb. Whatever anybody else thought, Jersey voters liked him just fine. He was the rare honest pol in a notoriously corrupt state. And his New Deal populism proved to be enduringly popular.
As is the case with any elected official, there are some black marks on Frank Lautenberg’s record. He voted to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, against the first Clinton budget in 1993, and for the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (although he later supported same-sex marriage). More often, however, he was extraordinarily prescient on important issues — keeping his head when, sadly, too few other elected Democrats kept theirs. Most impressively, he voted against NAFTA, against welfare reform, and against the Iraq War.
The World War II vet’s impassioned opposition to the war in Iraq brought some of his finest hours. On the floor of the Senate, accompanied by a hugely enlarged cartoon of a chicken, he denounced Vice President Cheney as the “lead chicken hawk.” Chicken hawks, he said, “talk tough on national defense and military issues and cast aspersions on others. When it was their turn to serve, where were they? AWOL, that’s where they were.”
Lautenberg was the last of a now-extinct species: an old school, unapologetic, get-the-job-done New Deal liberal. In an economy where millions continue to suffer as the result of misconceived Herbert Hoover-like austerity policies, we are in sore need of many more public servants like him. He will be mourned and missed.