With the announced re-retirement of Frank Lautenberg, the U.S. Senate is losing its last World War II veteran and one of its staunchest liberals. He has been a leader on a wide scope of causes, most near to the hearts of the majority of American Jews, including gun control, economic opportunity, anti-smoking, aviation safety and security, environmental protection, reproductive rights, health care reform and helping AIDS patients.
Actually this will his second retirement; he left the first time in 2001, but ran again two years later when scandal forced Sen. Robert Toricelli (D) to drop his reelection bid. Lautenberg wasn’t enjoying retirement and he missed the Senate.
Now 89 and with some recent health problems, the oldest member of the Senate said he plans to keep working until the end until the end of this term, January 3, 2015.
“I am not announcing the end of anything. I am announcing the beginning of a two-year mission to pass new gun safety laws, protect children from toxic chemicals and create more opportunities for working families in New Jersey,” he said.
Lautenberg, who had a long history in Jewish philanthropy, has been a staunch supporter of Israel but not one of its leaders in the Senate.
When he arrived on Capitol Hill after the 1982 election, the former UJA national chair was sensitive about being labeled the senator from Israel or the Jewish senator, and he initially shied away from high profile involvement in Israel-related issues.
Some of that may also have reflected a resentment that he didn’t get the kind of Jewish support in his first election that he had expected. His opponent was liberal Republican Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick, who was considered one of Israel’s strongest friends and an early leader in the fight against terrorism. Many pro-Israel activists believed it was essential not to abandon old friends and supporters like Fenwick regardless of the credentials of their opponent. Although Lautenberg won 58-42, he smarted for some time, feeling the Jewish community, which he had served so long, had let him down.
Lautenberg’s retirement heads off a possible primary challenge from Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who has made no secret of his interest in running for the seat and now appears to have the inside track. Many Democrats had expected the popular mayor would run against Gov. Chris Christie.
Lautenberg is the oldest senator but not most senior senator (that’s Vermont’s Pat Leahy). One reason is that although he served 18 years the first time and is now in the tenth year of his second go-round, he lost all seniority when he retired between 2001 and 2003. That makes him 34th in seniority instead of 7th; the senior Jewish senator is Carl Levin (D-Michigan), currently in his sixth term. There are 11 Jewish senators, 10 Democrats and one Independent, in the 113th Congress.