Memories of Frank Lautenberg

The late Senator was a tough guy with a softer side.

Frank Lautenberg in 1982 with Steve Adubato, left.
At a campaign rally during his first run for Senate in 1982, Frank Lautenberg confers with a young Steve Adubato, who emceed the event.
Photo: Courtesy of Steve Adubato

Frank Lautenberg was a complex guy. I met him in 1982 when, at age 58, he was running for the U.S. Senate. A multi-millionaire businessman who helped create the highly successful company ADP, Lautenberg was challenging the iconic, pipe-smoking congresswoman Millicent Fenwick, who was then 72. Lautenberg would imply that Fenwick was too old to serve in the Senate. Lautenberg won and ended up serving more than 29 years, dying in office on June 3 at the age of 89. If he’d had his way, he probably would have run again in 2014.

Lautenberg won that 1982 race by fighting hard against the popular Fenwick. It would be the first of many hard-fought political battles for Lautenberg. Publicly, he relished showing how tough he could be and would remind folks that he was a product of gritty Paterson who wouldn’t take crap from anyone.

In 1983, at 25, I was running for the state Assembly with virtually no chance of winning, and for some reason that I still can’t figure out, Lautenberg—newly elected to the Senate—took an interest in my candidacy. He raised money for my campaign and helped me win that race, and I appreciated everything he did.

Two years later, when I was running for reelection, Lautenberg and his Senate colleague, Bill Bradley, went door-to-door campaigning with me. Predictably, most residents were awestruck by Bradley, the 6-foot-5 former Knicks basketball great. As often happened during their time together in the Senate, Bradley’s star power eclipsed Lautenberg. The man from Paterson resented it—and he wasn’t very good at hiding his feelings.

I lost that 1985 race, moved into broadcasting and eventually interviewed Lautenberg on many occasions. In one interview, I asked him some tough questions that he wasn’t thrilled about. Glaring at me, he provided the answers but couldn’t hide his disdain. When I reminded him that I was doing my job as a journalist, he turned and walked away. It would be years before Lautenberg would speak to me again.

One person who knew him better than most is Montclair resident Josh Weston, who was recruited by Lautenberg in 1970 to head up ADP. Weston says that, while many saw Lautenberg as a fighter, behind the scenes at ADP he was different. “Inside the company, there was an open culture where people could share constructive criticism without an explosion,” says Weston. “Frank, the external successful business guy who could explode at anybody, recognized that the people inside are what make the company. Inside the company he was considerate, appreciative and demanding, but not disrespectful. If he behaved on the inside as he did on the outside, I don’t think people would have stuck around.”

Lautenberg was also a family man—the father of four. According to his longtime Senate aide, Brendan Gill, now an Essex County freeholder, Lautenberg was the kind of father who taught by example. He was hardworking, industrious and tough. But, says Gill, “Frank was a professional grandfather. While he wasn’t a teddy bear as a dad, with his 13 grandkids he was.”

Gill remembers Lautenberg, in his mid-80s, visiting preschool children at a Head Start facility in Perth Amboy. “One kid hugged the Senator on his leg, and then all the kids started hugging Frank’s leg. He loved it,” says Gill. “With 5-year-olds, they can sense whether you’re real. He was gentle, which is an adjective you wouldn’t normally hear to describe Lautenberg, but at his core, he was like that.”

Frank Lautenberg—gentle? Funny. After his death, I didn’t hear any political pundits use that word to describe Lautenberg. I know I didn’t. Like many, I said he was a “fighter.” Tough, effective, and at times, one who would hold a grudge. But for those who got to see him close up, Lautenberg had many facets. He left an indelible imprint on New Jersey life. There will never be another guy like him. Like he loved to say, you can take the kid out of Paterson, but you can’t take Paterson out of the kid. You’re right, Senator, they never could. Rest in peace. A life well lived.

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