The loss of Frank Lautenberg is bad for the Senate, national politics, and the people of New Jersey.
This isn’t an obituary summarizing his politics or life story, as sufficient pieces in the New York Times or National Journal have taken care of that. However, some reflection is necessary on the day that the U.S. Senate has lost one of its most progressive and genuine members.
I had the privilege to work in Senator Frank Lautenberg’s office in the summer of 2012. I was an intern spending my summer as a graduate public policy student gaining knowledge of the policy formation process through the window of a federal legislator. It was an enjoyable and intellectually stimulating experience that I will continue to return to as my career evolves. I had the chance to work on an issue I was new to—whether immigration alone could sustain Social Security solvency—as well as ones I am passionate about—rail transportation and gun control. The impassioned, ignorant rants I was subjected to by callers-in from around the country (judging by various accents) showed me that Lautenberg had legitimate impact and that right-wing interest groups feared his progressivism.
Like many Senate offices, Lautenberg’s staff contained some serious-but-impersonal policy wonks, talented recent college graduates who were just doing the Hill staffer thing, and a cadre of individuals interested in solving pressing policy problems through a commitment to public service. It was a reflection of the depth of the man that members of the last group were the ones with palpably higher status in the office, regardless of age or title. Thomas Wright, Executive Director of the Regional Plan Association, must have felt the same way about his time as a Lautenberg intern.
It was clear from his stare and controlled speech that Lautenberg was an abrasive man when he wanted to be. My stint in his office left me with a great desire to have experienced him in his prime. It was also clear that when he asked you a question, he was genuinely interested in your answer, and that it’d better be an interesting one.
When Lautenberg spoke publicly, he spoke directly. Because he was accustomed to the game of national politics, party-line material made its way into his speeches now and then. He knew his role—that of the progressive agitator—and played it well. He pushed for reform legislation that was well to the left of what ended up passing on several issues. This will be a major loss for Democrats as they work on legislation to improve immigration policy and give gun control another try. But sometimes, like on environmental issues, there was scarce interest and Lautenberg became a successful legislative pioneer. The Senate—on both sides of the aisle—is now bereft of his brand of policy leadership.
Lautenberg was also dedicated to serving New Jerseyans. His D.C. office never shrugged off constituent concerns. When help could not possibly come from his district offices, staffers made calls to federal or state agencies to do what they could. Replacing Lautenberg will likely be harder on his constituents than on his party or legislative body for this reason. We can only hope that his successor comes close to his ability to set aside his individual ambition to serve the people of New Jersey with as much sincerity and tenacity as Lautenberg demonstrated.
Note: this article appeared on Medium on June 3, 2013.