Senator Frank Lautenberg passes on

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has passed away from complications due to viral pneumonia at the age of 89, according to Fox News.

First elected to the Senate in 1982, Lautenberg lived to be the oldest member of the upper chamber by the end of his tenure and was the last surviving World War II veteran in the Senate. He initially retired from the Senate in 2000, but ultimately returned to Capitol Hill two years later at the age of 78.

Lautenberg was best known for advocating federal restrictions on tobacco use. Most notably, he authored the landmark 1987 law that banned smoking on airplanes. And 21 years later, he led the push to close the Senate “smoking rooms.”

He was also a prominent voice for increased gun control even as many fellow Democrats distanced themselves from the issue. He wrote the 1996 law that prohibits domestic abusers from purchasing firearms, and called for closing the so-called gun show loophole to strengthen background checks. In fact, the last votes he cast in the Senate came in April on various gun control amendments.

He never held any elected office besides U.S. Senator, twice winning that position in the aftermath of scandal: first in 1982 when the Abscam investigation knocked out the incumbent Democrat, Harrison Williams, with a bribery conviction… then again in 2002 when the incumbent Democrat, Robert Torricelli, dropped out the race at the last minute due to a campaign finance scandal.

In addition to his military and political service, Lautenberg was a successful businessman, having co-founded payroll processing giant Automatic Data Processing.  ABC News assesses his net worth at “upwards of $55 million.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reviews the Senator’s recent history of health problems:

As he completed his fifth Senate term, health problems diminished his role in Washington. He had overcome stomach cancer in 2010, but recently was absent for long stints. A bout of the flu and bronchitis in late 2012 forced him to miss votes on a relief package to help New Jersey recover from superstorm Sandy, and he was out for more than a month again earlier this year as the Senate took up the debate on guns, the issue he had long championed.

He began using a cane, as leg pain and fatigue crept in, and was eventually confined to a wheelchair.

He did not speak on the Senate floor in April when a vote came up on his plan to limit the size of gun magazines. Blumenthal made the case instead.

CBS News adds that he “missed several Senate votes in the first months of the year.  He had the flu and missed the Senate’s Jan. 1 vote to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff of rising taxes and falling government spending, then missed several votes two months later because of leg pain.”

Lautenberg had already announced his intention to retire in 2014 when his current term ended.  New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, will have to appoint a temporary replacement, as outlined by The Hill:

Senate GOP aides expect New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to appoint a Republican and the possibilities include lieutenant Gov. Kim Guadagno, state Sen. Tom Kean J., who ran against Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) in 2006 and attorney Bill Palatucci, a longtime friend and adviser to Christie.

According to New Jersey election law, Christie may appoint a replacement to temporarily fill Lautenberg’s seat until a special election occurs to elect someone to serve out the remainder of Lautenberg’s term.

Christie may set the date of the special election. It’s unclear whether he’ll choose to schedule it on the same day as the gubernatorial and state legislative elections, on Nov. 5 of this year.

Setting the special on the same date as the upcoming gubernatorial election could give a boost to a Republican candidate from Christie’s coattails, as he’s running far ahead of the Democratic candidate for governor and is expected to easily defeat her.

Among the leading Democrat candidates for the seat is Newark mayor Cory Booker, whose early talk of making a run in 2014 led Lautenberg to remark that Mayor Booker was in need of a “spanking” for being “disrespectful” of the longtime incumbent.

Sincere condolences to Senator Lautenberg’s family – a wife, six children, and 13 grandchildren – on their loss.  He was a combative politician who would doubtless be confident that his long political career can stand up to lengthy critical reflection, but our first reaction to the news of his passing should be compassion for the bereaved, and a salute to what will probably be the last World War 2 veteran to serve in the Senate.  Today marks the end of both a long, full life, and a chapter in our history.