By David Cruz
“They can take the kid out of Paterson but you can’t take Paterson out of the kid,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg before a packed community room at the New Jersey Community Development Corporation where today’s announcement was held. The senator’s father worked at the silk factories nearby. Surrounded by his wife and children, the senator recalled his father, who died at 43, but left a major impact on young Frank.
“My father fought for the right to organize his fellow workers to feed his family and help his children succeed,” he said.
Lautenberg credited his father for inspiring him to be an advocate for working people, education and environmental protection. The senator was hailed as a leader who changed the culture in the late 1980s when he led the charge to ban smoking on airplanes.
“There’s no question that any time anyone gets on an airplane they thank Frank Lautenberg before they even do their little prayer,” noted Sen. Linda Greenstein. “They thank him for the fact that we don’t have smoke on planes. That was a big one.”
But for all the good Lautenberg has done over his career in the U.S. Senate, it was what’s next — more specifically who’s next — that was the topic of whispered conversations here. Mentioned most prominently was Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who was not here today. Also not here today but mentioned as potential candidates were Congressmen Frank Pallone and Rush Holt and Senate President Steve Sweeney. The lone woman who’s been mentioned and has made no secret of her potential interest in a run is Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver.
“Now that there is an opportunity to support a woman going to the U.S. Senate, we need to sit down and we need to explore it and we need to talk about it,” Oliver said. “I think that strategically, our party in New Jersey has to open up and become more inclusive in terms of the hierarchy of our party.”
Power broker and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo hovered around the edges of the crowd. He’s a declared Booker man, but has so far shown little interest in exclaiming his support for the top of the Democratic ticket in this year’s election. That Democrat — Sen. Barbara Buono — was in the house today and said a little competition is not necessarily a bad thing for a party.
“I think so,” said Buono, who professed a personal affection for Lautenberg, calling him a “giant” of New Jersey politics. “You know, when people talked about the possibility of a primary for the gubernatorial race, some people said it wasn’t good for the party. I don’t accept that. I think that as many people that are in the primary it’s good for the party, as long as it’s an exchange of ideas on the issues.”
As for the star of the show today, he took no questions from the media but was hurried off to a side room for a quick nosh and some congratulations from friends, fans and family. He seemed relaxed and relieved that this was the right decision, at the right time.
Lautenberg made it clear that this was not a retirement announcement. In fact, he has set an ambitious agenda for the next two years, but today’s announcement does give a green light to the men and women who would be his successor.