Senator Frank Lautenberg was buried today at Arlington cemetery, closing a week of mourning and remembrance worthy of his long career in public service. I had the privilege of observing the Senator from a distance as a constituent when I was a young man and later to work closely with him and his staff after he returned to the Senate in 2002, mostly on the issue of chemical reform.
The two vantage points reinforced each other. This was a man whose image matched his substance, which is too rare these days. He was a consistent and principled advocate for the kitchen table concerns of working people: Having a transit system that allowed them to get to work. A functioning port that kept commerce in the area. And, of course, common sense protections from harmful pollution and dangerous products like tobacco.
The obituaries have cited his record, but still don’t quite do it justice to my mind. Saying he lead the fight to ban smoking in airplanes, for example, almost sounds quaint nowadays, like something from a future season of Madmen. We take smoke-free environments and the tobacco industry’s collapse in credibility for granted.
But at the time, the tobacco industry was a political colossus with an enormous war-chest and seasoned operatives at its disposal. Political courage can be defined, at it’s simplest, as a willingness to piss off people with money for a greater purpose. Senator Lautenberg had that courage, and his fight against the industry set the stage for its later defeats and the enormous public health benefits that followed.
The obituaries also don’t capture the effect that the Senator had beyond the bills that bear his name. Senator Lautenberg put the full weight and influence of his office behind defending and strengthening the EPA programs that protect public health, like Superfund and the Clean Air Act. This constant, often behind-the- scenes work, is a testament to the character of the man.
He wasn’t looking to simply associate himself with popular issues. He was there for them when the camera was off.
I’m sad that we didn’t get to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act while he was alive. I remember the Senator’s near giddiness last year when we had a few hundred moms and other activists in town for the National Stroller Brigade for Safer Chemicals. He practically bounced around the crowd and I’m told he brought it up with whoever he met – four star generals, federal judges- for weeks afterward.
When he announced his retirement at the beginning of the year, the Senator named chemical reform as one of two priorities for his remaining time in public service. He was working hard on it right up until the week before he died. I hope the Senate is inspired to complete that work.
But either way, I hope you’ll join me in mourning the loss of Senator Lautenberg and honoring his consistency and courage in advocating for the health and well-being of the American people.