Frank Lautenberg speaks on Hurricane Sandy, December 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Frank Lautenberg, the son of a Paterson, New Jersey, silk mill worker and the last World War II veteran serving in the US Senate, took his cues from another political time: a time when liberals were bold and unapologetic, a time when it was understood that government could and should do great things.
One of the few members of Congress who could remember listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the radio and going to college on the initial GI Bill, Lautenberg served five terms in the US Senate as a champion of great big infrastructure investments—especially for Amtrak and urban public transportation—great big environmental regulations, great big consumer protections and great big investigations of wrongdoing by Wall Street.
It can fairly be said that the New Jersey senator, who died Monday at age 89, kept the New Deal flame lit. Indeed, one of his last major pieces of legislation proposed to renew one of FDR’s greatest legacies: the Works Progress Administration, which provided public-works employment for millions of Americans during the Great Depression that defined Lautenberg’s youth.
When he introduced his “21st Century WPA Act” two years ago, Lautenberg declared, “Our economy will not recover and our nation will not move forward until we put jobs first. Establishing a 21st Century Works Progress Administration would immediately put Americans to work rebuilding our nation and strengthening our communities. Across the country, we continue to benefit from projects completed under President Roosevelt’s WPA, which employed more than three million Americans during a time of great need. A 21st Century WPA would tackle our nation’s job crisis head-on and accelerate our economic recovery.”
A self-made millionaire who paid his own way into politics at age 58, Lautenberg never forgot that government programs lifted him out of poverty. And he refused to bend to the austerity fantasies of official Washington. Indeed, he attacked them with gusto, especially after returning to the Senate in 2003 following a bizarre turn of political events in the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency.
First elected to the Senate in 1982, Lautenberg retired in 2000, saying he was sick of the money chase required to fund big-budget campaigns. Two years later, New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli, a more centrist Democrat with whom Lautenberg had frequently sparred, was hit with a corruption scandal in the midst of the 2002 campaign. Torricelli had to quit, creating a circumstance where it looked as if the Republicans would take the seat virtually by default. But Lautenberg elbowed his way into the race, fought in the courts for a place on the ballot and was easily reelected to the Senate at age 78.