UPDATED: Sen. Lautenberg’s passing sets stage for political poker Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (1924-2013)

UPDATED: Sen. Lautenberg’s passing sets stage for political poker

BREAKING NEWS: New Jersey will hold special election in October to fill vacant Senate seat

UPDATE:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has just announced that a special election will be held in October to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, according to a news alert from The Wall Street Journal.

The Journal noted that slating the special election will be "an expensive prospect that is likely to cause some push back from state Democrats and members of his own [Republican] party."  

Politico.com news alert includes this observation about the October decision: "...sources say his [Christie's] office believes it would lose a court fight if he [Christie] had scheduled the election for November instead. The move all but ensures criticism that he is unnecessarily spending millions of taxpayer dollars to serve his own political needs. The timing means that popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker [D] will not be on the ballot-- potentially stoking Democratic turnout-- when voters decide whether to give Christie another term in November."

ORIGINAL FleetOwner STORY:

The death yesterday of Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) at age 89 has deprived the U.S. Senate of a long-time voice for transportation-safety legislation. The late lawmaker had announced on Feb. 15 that he would not seek a sixth Senate term. As for who will fill Lautenberg’s seat for the roughly year and a half of remaining in the term, is right now a matter of political speculation.

Lautenberg, who was the last remaining World War II veteran to serve in the Senate, died of complications due to viral pneumonia at 4:02 a.m. Monday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell in New York City.

Referred to at times as the “last of the New Deal Democrats,” Lautenberg was regarded by many as a forthright champion of liberal causes while in office.

 According to the Senator’s Office, general and trucking-related legislation that defined his “unparalleled legacy of transportation safety” include these key measures:

·         Raising Drinking Age. “One of Sen. Lautenberg’s first major bills to be signed into law was legislation to standardize the legal drinking age across the country to 21 years old.”

·         Lowering BAC. “Lautenberg’s bill was signed into law that required all states to establish a .08 blood alcohol content limit as the minimum threshold for drunk driving.”

·         Ignition Interlocks. “In June 2008, another Lautenberg law took effect to reduce drunk driving by requiring states to change laws so repeat drunk drivers are required to have ignition interlocks installed on their cars and trucks.”

·         Truck & Bus Safety. Truck and Bus Safety: “The 2012 Surface Transportation law included Lautenberg’s provision to keep fatigued drivers from getting behind the wheel by requiring trucks and buses to have electronic onboard recorders to document driver hours to ensure that rules regarding driver fatigue are being followed.”

·         Bigger Trucks. “Lautenberg wrote the law to ban dangerous triple-trailer trucks”… which are “now banned from driving on roads in New Jersey and most other states…. and a 2012 law includes a Lautenberg provision requiring the Dept. of Transportation to study the impacts of bigger trucks.”

“Sen. Lautenberg was a champion of the American people,” said Bud Wright, executive director of the American Assn. of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO), in a statement. “He also was a true leader in transportation.

“Sen. Lautenberg helped to pass landmark transportation legislation throughout his career to improve the health and safety of the traveling public and his tireless work on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation; and Environment and Public Works committees will be missed,” Wright added.

“Whether leading the charge to enhance transportation safety and security, secure funding for necessary transportation investments or defend basic collective bargaining rights on the Senate floor, transportation workers knew they had a friend in Frank Lautenberg,” said Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, in a statement.  

“In the area of transportation safety and security there was no greater champion than Senator Lautenberg,” Wytkind added. “He understood that our government has a sacred obligation to ensure that workers come home safely every day and he served to fulfill this responsibility.”

Upon setting aside his prepared remarks at a speaking engagement yesterday, per The Washington Post, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), remarked to his audience that ”…the best way to describe Frank Lautenberg… is as a fighter. Sen. Lautenberg fought for the things he believed in and sometimes he just fought because he liked to. 

“He always reminded me that he was a kid from Paterson whose father died at a very young age, who served in the military and served his country, and then built a business which he was extraordinarily proud of, just as proud of his time at ADP as he was of his many years, nearly thirty years, in the United States Senate, and so today is a sad day for the people of New Jersey,” the Governor continued. “Whenever we lose someone who’s committed to public service and has been an honest and dedicated public servant as Senator Lautenberg was, it’s a loss for everyone.”

All political eyes in the Garden State— and in Washington DC— are now on Gov. Christie to see how he will handle the filling of Lautenberg’s vacant Senate seat. There are several avenues open to the Governor, but each comes with its own political calculus. 

Lautenberg’s death has handed Christie the rare opportunity of hand-picking a U.S. Senator. But as detailed in an analysis piece by The New York Times, his decision is “fraught with pitfalls, none bigger than having to choose between improving his party’s fortunes in Washington and furthering his own political ambitions at home.”

Basically, per the posted article, Christie must pick one of these three options to move forward in this chess game:

1.     Adding a special election for the Senate seat to this November’s state ballot

2.     Name a Republican to “hold the seat” and then delay an election on a replacement until 2014

3.     Set a primary election as early as August, which would mean a special election in October

As Christie is running for reelection in the fall, he may not go for Option No. 1. Because, argues The New York Times, putting the seat up then might draw in Mayor Cory A. Booker (D-Newark) at the top of the Democratic ticket, which could energize more Democrats-- who already outnumber Republicans in the state by 700,000 registered voters-- to come out to vote.

Option No. 2 would give the GOP another Senate vote— for a year and a half anyway. But taking that route could open Christie up to allegations of “sidestepping the electoral process.”

Going for Option No. 3, contends The New York Times, would put the Democrats in a stronger position to win the seat. And it would open Christie to accusations that he was “wasting some $24 million in taxpayer money by holding those two extra elections ahead of the regular November balloting for self-interested political reasons” as well as potentially alienating Republican donors.

Whichever option Christie ultimately puts into play, the end game will be closely watched. That’s because, as the newspaper piece put it, Lautenberg’s vote was so “reliably liberal” that Democratic leaders asked him twice in recent weeks to return to the Senate to cast votes despite his failing health.

Lautenberg was born in Paterson, NJ, on January 23, 1924. A statement released by the Senator’s Office advised that he was the son of Russian and Polish immigrants and “grew up poor” in various New Jersey towns. He enlisted in the Army at 18 in 1942 and served in the Signal Corps in Europe during World War II.

He credited the G.I. Bill with enabling him to graduate from Columbia University, from which he received a degree in Economics in 1949. A few years after, Lautenberg joined with two friends to co-found Automatic Data Processing (ADP), which he later served as chairman & CEO.

Deciding to enter politics in 1982, Lautenberg started at the top by winning an open U.S. Senate seat from his native New Jersey. He retired from the Senate in 2000 after serving three consecutive terms. After a two-year hiatus from office, he was elected again to the Senate in 2002 and re-elected in 2008.

Sen. Lautenberg is survived by his wife, Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg, and six children and 13 grandchildren.

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