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Lautenberg: The last 'swamp dog'

By Patrick Murray, Special to CNN
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Tue June 4, 2013
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, passed away on Monday, June 3. Here, he presides over a hearing on Superstorm Sandy in Washington on December 6, 2012. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, passed away on Monday, June 3. Here, he presides over a hearing on Superstorm Sandy in Washington on December 6, 2012.
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Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Patrick Murray: First time he voted was in 1982 election; underdog Frank Lautenberg won
  • A liberal, Lautenberg pushed laws on transportation, smoking, drinking age, guns, he says
  • He says he had street-fighter's reputation, a characterization he embraced
  • Murray: Christie has tricky task of picking replacement, a chance for GOP to get Senate seat

Editor's note: Patrick Murray is director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. PolitickerNJ.com has named him one of the 100 most politically influential people in New Jersey.

(CNN) -- I turned 18 years old a week before Election Day in 1982 and was excited to exercise my newly earned right to vote. The first ballot I ever cast was for United States Senate. The race pitted a popular veteran Congresswoman against a political neophyte businessman who was the decided underdog. The underdog won. His name was Frank Lautenberg.

Sen. Lautenberg went on to win two more rough-and-tumble races before retiring. However, he jumped at the chance to return to Washington in 2002, when incumbent Bob Torricelli, dragged down by ethics allegations, announced that he wanted to withdraw less than two months before the election. In a move that became known as "the switcheroo," Democrats were allowed to put Lautenberg's name on the ballot instead. He then coasted to a double digit win and did the same in 2008.

Lautenberg was unabashedly liberal on social issues such as abortion, the environment, and gun control. His major legislative legacy, though, centers on transportation issues. He was a strong supporter of improving the country's mass transit infrastructure including funding Amtrak.

Patrick Murray
Patrick Murray

Memories of his father's early death attributed to unhealthy working conditions, though, kept Lautenberg fighting on the environmental front. In fact, he used transportation-related legislation to further his larger health and safety agenda. This included a smoking ban on airplanes, which was the first widespread limitation on using tobacco in public. He also created a de facto national drinking age by reducing federal highway funds for states whose minimum age was lower than 21.

What I will remember most about Lautenberg is that he always stood his ground. He was never shy about telling you why he was right and the other guy was wrong. A Lautenberg opponent once described him as a "swamp dog." While the senator initially bristled at the characterization, he took pride in having a street-fighter's reputation.

Some observers thought that the octogenarian met his match in 2010. That was when recently-elected New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- hardly a shrinking violet himself -- cancelled plans to build a new train tunnel under the Hudson River to New York City. Lautenberg came out swinging, calling Christie's decision one of "the biggest public policy blunders in New Jersey's history." The feud escalated, but Lautenberg would not back down. The two didn't really patch things up until they worked together to get federal aid for Hurricane Sandy recovery.

Lautenberg leaves tricky political question for Christie

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Chris Christie now has the opportunity to appoint a replacement for Lautenberg. He is faced with the decision of either appointing a caretaker or giving an ally the ability to run as a sitting senator, while also clearing other Republicans from the field.

Coincidentally, the last time a New Jersey governor was faced with this decision was 1982, after a Democratic senator had resigned. At the time, New Jersey Republicans hadn't won a U.S. Senate seat in nearly 10 years. But Ronald Reagan had won the state by 13 points two years earlier and this was seen as a prime opportunity for the GOP.

Republican Gov. Tom Kean, who had won the closest gubernatorial election in state history only a few months before, opted to appoint a placeholder as a gesture of goodwill. As a result, it was Lautenberg who was able to squeeze out a come-from-behind 4-point win over Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick.

Christie is now faced with a similar prospect -- except that now the New Jersey GOP hasn't claimed a U.S. Senate win in more than 40 years. New Jersey law has two conflicting statutes on whether a special election has to be held this year or can wait until 2014. This could well end up in court.

If the election is held this year, whoever runs as the GOP standard-bearer for the remainder of the term could appear on the same ballot as the extremely popular Chris Christie. Considering the coattails potential of his almost certain re-election bid, there is no better time for Republicans to take this seat. If they win now, they will have a voter-tested incumbent running for a full term in 2014.

Of course, a contested senate race could bring out Democratic voters who were apathetic about the governor's race. This could cut into Christie's winning margin, which he hopes will be large enough to use as a selling point in a 2016 presidential run. The risk is particularly high if the Democrats field a well-known and well-funded challenger like Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

Booker has been working to establish himself as the heir-apparent for 2014 -- which Lautenberg did not appreciate. A special election this year, though, may entice some of New Jersey's sitting congressmen to make a run without having to give up their House seats. So it could be a crowded field.

Christie can also call a special election for the senate seat before the gubernatorial election in November. This could be a free-for-all with many Democrats and Republicans getting into the fray, although Democrats would have a greater chance of holding onto the seat in this scenario.

None of the possible contenders, though, can claim the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, Greatest Generation personal story that shaped Frank Lautenberg's years of public service. Regardless of who fills the seat, one thing is clear: We will not see another "swamp dog" in the U.S. Senate.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick Murray.

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