Lautenberg first gained prominence as chairman and CEO of Automatic Data Processing, a New Jersey-based payroll services company he had founded with two friends in 1952. It became one of the largest such companies in the world.
He was first elected to the Senate in 1982, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Working his way up the seniority ladder, Lautenberg managed to carve out influence on the environment and transportation, two issues that matter greatly to New Jersey, the nation’s most densely populated state.
Before Republicans won control of the Senate in the 1994 elections, Lautenberg was chairman of key subcommittees responsible for transportation appropriations and the Superfund pollution cleanup program. He became the ranking Democrat on those panels after 1994.
From those posts, he worked to secure hundreds of millions of dollars for mass transit projects in the state, which he said would reduce pollution and traffic congestion. He also was a leading defender of Amtrak, the nation’s passenger rail system.
In 1984, as a novice lawmaker and member of the minority chamber in the Senate, Lautenberg wrote a bill to withhold federal highway funds from states that did not set 21 as a minimum age to buy and possess alcohol.
After the federal voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, many states followed suit by setting minimum drinking ages at 18 to 20.
By the early 1980s, the problem of drunken driving by teenagers was getting widespread attention. Reagan signed the bill, and by 1988, every state had a legal drinking age of 21. The law is widely credited with reducing the number of highway fatalities.
Lautenberg, a former smoker, often attacked tobacco companies’ advertising tactics. During a 1989 debate over smoking, when tobacco-state lawmakers asked what would become of tobacco farmers, Lautenberg scoffed, ‘‘Grow soybeans or something.’’
He was one of two prime sponsors of the 1989 law that banned smoking on all domestic flights of less than six hours, one of several anti-smoking laws he championed and one that paved the way for more restrictions on where people could light up.
Another frequent target was the gun industry. ‘‘Common sense tells you that there are more than enough dangerous weapons on the streets,’’ said Lautenberg, who sponsored numerous gun-control measures, a few of which were enacted.
He also spent much of his political career pushing for funding for Superfund, a program that pays for cleanup of environmentally hazardous sites.
Lautenberg was a reliable vote for traditional Democratic policies, though he bucked President Bill Clinton in 1993 on the budget because he said it raised taxes and didn’t cut spending enough. He also voted against Clinton on the North American Free Trade Agreement, opposed by the staunch labor allies Lautenberg had come to depend on.
Later in his career, he became a foil for Christie.
In 2012, Christie called Lautenberg a ‘‘partisan hack’’ and an ‘‘embarrassment’’ and said it was time for him to retire. Lautenberg called Christie ‘‘the name-calling governor’’ and, in one speech, ‘‘the king of liars.’’
Lautenberg did not possess a dynamic speaking style or telegenic face and for his first 14 years in the Senate, he was often in the shadow of New Jersey’s other, better known senator, Bill Bradley, a former pro basketball player and 2000 presidential candidate. But he proved a formidable and bruising foe to Republicans who constantly considered him vulnerable politically.
Running for an open Senate seat in 1982, Lautenberg won 51 percent of the vote against Fenwick, the model for the cartoon character Lacey Davenport in ‘‘Doonesbury.’’ The win, financed largely with $3 million of Lautenberg’s own fortune, was a shocker.
Fenwick was 72 when Lautenberg questioned her capacity to serve in the Senate. On the campaign trail, he criticized her ‘‘capability’’ to be a senator, but some observers seemed to think he was going after her age — a fact that was noted 26 years later when he ran for re-election at age 84.
‘‘It’s hard when your own words come back to haunt you, isn’t it, Mr. Lautenberg?’’ said an ad for his Democratic primary opponent, US Rep. Robert Andrews, whom he defeated handily before beating former US Rep. Dick Zimmer in the general election.
After Lautenberg won the 1982 election, Nicholas Brady, who had been appointed to serve the remainder of the previous term, resigned early to give Lautenberg valuable seniority over other new senators. He was sworn in Dec. 27, 1982, by a federal judge from Denver while he was vacationing in Vail, Colo.Continued...