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Lautenberg is a son of New Jersey, having lived in more than a dozen New Jersey towns—Paterson, Ridgewood, and Paramus among them. He attended 13 different public schools in 12 years, growing up in financial straits but with strong family influences and a proud legacy of hard work and honesty. A graduate of Columbia Business School, on whose board he sits, Lautenberg has long and deep ties to Cardozo, as well.

His daughter, Ellen Hendel, who is now enjoying motherhood, graduated from Cardozo in 1993, and the Senator fondly remembers having been both the commencement speaker and a proud father that year. He said that his speech focused on the honorable role of lawyers in defining and facilitating the rule of law in a democracy. “We are a nation of laws and, therefore, couldn’t function without a population of lawyers.” At one time, the Senator considered going to law school himself, but after completing his undergraduate studies and serving three years in the army, he was 25 and felt that he was just “too old.”

Currently in his fourth term as a senator, the robust 82- year-old grandfather of 10, who still skis, said, “Now, I am a lawmaker and so much of what I do depends on my comprehension of the Constitution.”

His introduction to Cardozo came when Ellen attended. “I’ve been impressed with the school’s faculty and its leadership. David Rudenstine is very capable as was Paul Verkuil,” he said. “I’m proud of the direction Cardozo takes,” explaining that Cardozo is dedicated to individual rights and the ethical practice of law and singled out the Innocence Project as an especially good example of both. He also noted Cardozo’s Jewish heritage, saying, “That is a precious connection for me, as well.”

Lautenberg was first elected to the Senate in 1982, serving three terms before retiring, briefly. He was reelected in 2003 to fill the seat vacated by Robert Torriccelli. In the interim, he joined the Cardozo board, on which he still sits. He has also been a donor to the capital campaign and served as a special guest at Law School events, including a parents’ brunch.

In 2000, after the Senator announced he would not seek reelection, Congress renamed the federal courthouse in Newark the Frank R. Lautenberg Post Office and Courthouse. The newly completed Secaucus train station and a school in Paterson are named for him as well. “It’s considered bad form to name things for people in office,” he noted.

He took a special interest in just how he would be remembered in the eponymous courthouse. The story he entertained this reporter with was how hard it was—and the political acumen it took—to get a plaque of sufficient size in a well-located place with a personal inscription. He wanted to ensure that those coming to the courthouse would understand the importance of this recognition to the Senator and to use the opportunity to get across an important message. He spent much time deciding on a text that would reflect his feelings. Now, in a prominent location, a plaque bearing the Senator’s name and words reads: “The true measure of democracy is its dispensation of justice.”


“I wanted people to know when they walk into that courthouse that we are a nation of laws and they get the same chance as everyone else,” he said. During the Senate debates on the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, Senator Lautenberg, who did not vote for the Associate Justice’s confirmation, invoked the words on that plaque, saying, “I believe in that quote. It guides me today.”

When asked of which of his Senate accomplishments he was proudest, he said, “Much of my legislation is devoted to protecting people, protecting children in particular.” He sponsored legislation that raised the drinking age to 21, which he says has saved “over 20,000 families from having to mourn the loss of a child.” He is a major supporter of guncontrol legislation and tried very hard when President Clinton was in office to close the “gun show loophole.” “After losing this major fight, I wrote a law that prohibits domestic abusers to get a gun. Almost 50,000 gun licenses have been denied by that Lautenberg law.”

Most impressive to his guests was the story of legislation sponsored by Lautenberg in 1987 that first banned smoking in airplanes. According to the Senator, this measure “changed the culture around the world about tobacco,” because it was the first time people experienced a smoke-free environment. “I got flowers from flight attendants. It has had the largest effect on people of any legislation I’ve sponsored.”

As the senior Senator from New Jersey, home to the second largest container terminal on the East Coast, he was at the center of the battle over the now-abandoned proposal for a company from Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to take over operations at several US seaports. “Nuclear components are transferred through Dubai to North Korea, Libya, Tehran—avowed enemies of the US. The UAE does one billion dollars worth of business with Iran and is, along with their neighbors, considering a boycott of Israel,” he explained.

Asked how his current term differs from the first three, Senator Lautenberg immediately pointed to one obvious and major change: Because the House, the Senate, and the White House are all in Republican hands, it has become extraordinarily difficult for Democrats to get legislation passed. Nonetheless, Lautenberg is making his presence felt. Upon returning to the Senate in 2003, The New York Times called him “one of the most surprising and talked about members of the Senate … [a]nd a real thorn in the side of Republicans.”

When asked about this reputation, Lautenberg replied, “I see a lot of things that are wrong,” quickly listing: American’s spending power is in decline, the “richest among us get tax breaks,” pensions are no longer sacrosanct, those without the means are deprived of the medical advances available to those who can afford them, and, perhaps most dismayingly, children who go astray do not have the programs they need. “It’s not fair.”

“I fought for the country in uniform and I’m fighting now. I’d rather be holding the sword against those who would do us harm. But, if I think the Republicans are doing things, I don’t mind sharpening my sword.”