Inquirer Editorial: Lautenberg's decision is best for New Jersey

Sen. Frank Lautenberg AP
Sen. Frank Lautenberg AP
Posted: February 18, 2013

One fall a decade ago, New Jersey's Democrats had themselves a problem. U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli had effectively exploded in the waning weeks of a reelection campaign, catapulting rich-guy Republican Doug Forrester from long shot to favorite as fast as you can say "severely admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee." Not to worry: The Democratic bosses hatched a plan to clean up the mess. They got recently retired Sen. Frank Lautenberg (their third or fourth choice) to agree to replace his old nemesis "Torch" on the ballot, and the state Supreme Court, in Trenton's answer to Bush v. Gore, actually let them do it. And so Lautenberg, the unlikely white(-haired) knight, rode to the party's rescue.

Just one problem: Having rid themselves of Frank once and ushered in rich-guy Democrat Jon Corzine (remember him?), the party couldn't figure out how to lose him again. Its gaggle of restive congressmen, unable to dislodge the senator, had to content themselves with begging for the seat Corzine soon tossed over his shoulder. And when Rep. Rob Andrews couldn't stand it anymore and challenged Lautenberg in a primary, the 84-year-old tuned him up good on his way to an easy reelection.

Lautenberg's recent suggestion that Newark Mayor Cory Booker deserved a "spanking" for seeking his seat showed how accustomed he became to this dynamic of futile challenges to his once-and-future incumbency. But the dynamic had changed: The celebrity mayor's polls suggest Lautenberg was the one headed for a tune-up next year.

A self-made Patersonian and World War II veteran who cofounded a pioneering payroll processor, Lautenberg has been as bellicose a senator as a campaigner. He's championed mass transit and the environment. He's led crackdowns on smoking and drunken driving. He's unapologetically touted his showing in a watchdog group's scoring of Congress' top pork processors. He's taunted tough guys like Dick Cheney and Chris Christie as if still in a Paterson schoolyard. And he's frustrated the unelected bosses who tend to run New Jersey's Democratic Party - the same crew that reluctantly turned to old Frank in its hour of need.

Now it's time for Lautenberg, at 89 the nation's oldest sitting senator, to retire - again. Though cancer has apparently had as much success toppling him as Andrews did, 91 would be a ripe age indeed to begin another six-year term. And new representation should suit the state, particularly if it's decided by a competitive election or two.

Besides, Lautenberg already knows politics are ruthless and cyclical. In 1982, on his way to defeating Republican Rep. Millicent Fenwick to win his first Senate term, he leveled a series of veiled attacks on her advanced age. She was 72.

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