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New Jersey Sen. Lautenberg dead at 89

Tuesday - 6/4/2013, 11:54am  ET

FILE - In this June 16, 1999 file photo, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., displays an AR-15 carbine at a news conference on Capitol Hill where he and other Democrats urged the House to pass his version of gun control legislation. Lautenberg, a longtime advocate of gun control, died Monday, June 3, 2013, at age 89. He returned to the Senate in April 2013 despite poor health for several votes on gun legislation favored by President Barack Obama. In the background are, from left to right: Rep. Nikta Lowey, D-N.Y.; Rep. Rod Blagojevich, D-Ill.; Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D, N.Y. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook, File)

Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- The next time a flight attendant reminds you there's no smoking or you witness a teenager getting carded at a liquor store, think of Frank Lautenberg.

The liberal Democratic senator from New Jersey left his mark on the everyday lives of millions of Americans, whether they know it or not. In the 1980s, he was a driving force behind the laws that banned smoking on most U.S. flights and made 21 the drinking age in all 50 states.

Lautenberg, a multimillionaire businessman who became an accomplished -- if often underestimated -- politician, died Monday at a New York hospital after suffering complications from viral pneumonia. His funeral will be held Wednesday morning in New York City.

At 89, he was the oldest person in the Senate and the last of 115 World War II veterans to serve there.

"He improved the lives of countless Americans with his commitment to our nation's health and safety," President Barack Obama said in a statement, "from improving our public transportation to protecting citizens from gun violence to ensuring that members of our military and their families get the care they deserve."

The Senate observed a moment of silence in Lautenberg's memory, and at the White House the flag was lowered to half-staff.

Lautenberg served nearly three decades in the Senate in two stints, beginning with an upset victory in 1982 over Republican Rep. Millicent Fenwick, the pipe-smoking, pearl-wearing patrician who was the model for the cartoon character Lacey Davenport in "Doonesbury."

Possessed with neither a dynamic speaking style nor a telegenic face, he won his last race in 2008 at age 84, becoming the first New Jersey politician ever elected to five Senate terms.

"People don't give a darn about my age," Lautenberg said then. "They know I'm vigorous. They know I've got plenty of energy."

Over the years, he was a reliable Democratic vote on such issues as unions, guns and the environment. A native of one of the most congested and heavily industrialized and polluted states, he worked to secure hundreds of millions of dollars for mass transit projects, ardently defended Amtrak and pushed for money for the Superfund toxic-waste cleanup program.

He was the author of a 1984 law that threatened to withhold federal highway money from states that did not adopt a drinking age of 21, a measure that passed amid rising alarm over drunken driving. At the time, some states allowed people as young as 18 to drink.

By 1988, every state was in compliance with the law, which has been widely credited with reducing highway deaths.

A former smoker, Lautenberg was one of two prime sponsors of the 1989 law that banned smoking on all domestic flights of less than six hours, one of several anti-smoking laws he championed. The measure helped pave the way for today's numerous restrictions on where people can light up.

Despite poor health that left him in a wheelchair, he returned to the Senate in April for several votes on gun legislation. He voted in favor of enhanced background checks for gun purchases and reinstatement of a ban on assault-style weapons. Both measures failed.

Lautenberg had announced earlier this year that he would not seek another term in 2014, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a fellow Democrat, said he would run for the seat.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called Lautenberg "a patriot whose success in business and politics made him a great American success story and a standout even within the fabled Greatest Generation."

Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who frequently tangled with Lautenberg, said: "I think the best way to describe Frank Lautenberg -- and the way he would probably want to be described to all of you today -- is as a fighter. Sen. Lautenberg fought for the things he believed in, and sometimes he just fought because he liked to."

"I give him praise on a life well-lived," the governor added.

Christie will appoint an interim successor. A special election could be held in the fall, or the appointed successor could serve until the 2014 election. Because New Jersey law is vague on the matter, the courts might have to sort it out.

Along with Lautenberg's legislative accomplishments, he had a string of electoral coups, including his upset over Fenwick, whom he called "the most popular candidate in the country," and a victory in a strange, abbreviated, back-from-retirement campaign two decades later.

He initially retired in 2000 after 18 years in the Senate, saying he did not have the drive to raise money for a fourth campaign. He served on the boards of three companies, two graduate schools and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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