Sen. Lautenberg remembered for his passion, compassion and grit

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One of the bonuses of the news profession is the friendships that often evolve from the professional relationships.  Frank Lautenberg and I became friendly in the eighties after he won his first term in the Senate at the age of 58.  It is interesting to note that until his death, he was the eldest member of the United States Senate who beat his first opponent back in 1982, Millicent Fenwick, in a bitterly fought campaign in which he made age an issue.  She was 72.  Lautenberg would tell me how lucky he felt to be a United States Senator.  It was a job he relished.

He always had a sparkle in his eye and the grit and energy lacking in many people half his age.  He was a tenacious lawmaker who rarely walked away from a good fight…always focusing on the needs of the working people of his state.  While he accomplished much: his fight for abortion rights, mass transit and gun control, he once told me his proudest achievement was getting a bill banning smoking on commercial airliners.

One of his most difficult days in his life was back in 1999 when he decided not to seek another term. He told me he just didn’t have the stomach any longer to spend four hours a day to reach out to friends and others to finance his campaign.  He said he wanted to spend more time with his children and grandchildren, and to do more skiing, his favorite sporting activity.  It wasn’t long after he decided not to run that Lautenberg told me and others that he regretted that decision  As fate would have it, in 2002, Senator Robert Torrecelli resigned his Senate seat amid an ethics scandal, and Governor McGreevey asked Lautenberg if he would return.  “What do you think Marv?,” he asked when I reached him for reaction that day. “Are you kidding Frank,” I responded, “You’re salivating to go back.” And he did as one of the strongest liberal voices in Congress.

Lautenberg and I often teased one another about the length of time we courted our ladies before finally getting married.  It took him 16, me 15.

The Senator and I enjoyed our verbal sparring during his many appearances on PIX11 News Closeup. Flashing back to that day in 1999 as we chatted in his Newark office, I remember asking him what he hoped his legacy would be.  “I hope my legacy will be that I was a guy who was an independent thinker who put the public interest above personal interest.”

Certainly prophetic words that ring true 14 years after they were expressed.  As we chatted, Lautenberg shared a story with me about how he was coerced into singing at a campaign event.  He chose a slight variation of a song made popular by another Jersey boy—Frank Sinatra. “Now the time is near…the campaign is over,” Lautenberg sang on key, ending, “And I did it my way!”

You sure did Frank….and we’re all a lot richer for it.