Sen. Frank Lautenberg of N.J. remembered as ‘fighter for the little guy’

FILE - In this Feb. 15, 2013 file photo, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, the oldest member of the Senate, speaks in his hometown of Paterson, N.J., where he said he plans to retire at the end of his current term. Lautenberg, a multimillionaire New Jersey businessman and liberal who was called out of retirement for a second tour of duty in Congress, has died at age 89.  (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

FILE - In this Feb. 15, 2013 file photo, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, the oldest member of the Senate, speaks in his hometown of Paterson, N.J., where he said he plans to retire at the end of his current term. Lautenberg, a multimillionaire New Jersey businessman and liberal who was called out of retirement for a second tour of duty in Congress, has died at age 89. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a multimillionaire New Jersey businessman and liberal who was called out of retirement for a second tour of duty in Congress, has died at age 89.

Lautenberg, the oldest member of the Senate and its last veteran of World War II, died of complications from viral pneumonia at 4:02 a.m. Monday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called it a sad day for the people of New Jersey.

The Republican governor called Lautenberg, a Democrat, a strong advocate for the causes that he believed in.

“I think the best way to describe Frank Lautenberg, and the way he would probably want to be described to all of you today, is as a fighter,” Christie said. “Sen. Lautenberg fought for the things he believed in. Sometimes he just fought because he liked to.”

Democratic state Sen. Ron Rice says Lautenberg was a down-to-earth guy who really cared about people.

“I just think he was one of the greatest senators we’ve had in terms of being a people’s person and reaching out and not letting people dictate to him,” said Rice.

During his nearly three decades in the Senate, Lautenberg pushed for enactment of the law that bans smoking on airlines, raised awareness of drunken driving, and helped secure million of dollars for mass transit projects in New Jersey.

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney says Lautenberg did things that affected people’s lives.

“An individual that came from great poverty to become a man of great means and never forgot where he came from,” said Sweeney. “He was a tireless fighter for the little guy.”

‘N.J. has lost a giant’

New Jersey Democratic Party Chairman John S. Wisniewski said Lautenberg embodied the “American dream.”

“Raised in poverty in Paterson, Frank Lautenberg served his country in World War II, returned to become a titan of American business with the founding of ADP and then began a second career of public service in the United States Senate,” Wisniewski said. “New Jersey has lost a giant.”

There is some confusion over the process of filling Lautenberg’s term, which does not expire until 2014.

Sweeney says it’s unclear whether a special election will be held to fill the remainder of Lautenberg’s Senate term.

“There are a couple of different statutes that conflict. Is there a special election in November? Is there not one until 2014?” Sweeney said. “That will all get sorted out.” Sweeney said he has no plans to run for the seat.

Lautenberg has had health problems in recent years. A bout with the flu caused him to miss the Senate’s Jan. 1 vote to avoid the fiscal cliff of rising taxes and falling government spending.

He had been diagnosed in February 2010 with lymphoma of the stomach and underwent chemotherapy for the next few months.

On Feb. 15, Lautenberg announced he would not seek a sixth term in the Senate.

Lautenberg was principal sponsor of a law banning smoking on domestic airline flights and, since 9/11, has been a prominent voice on securing chemical plants.

Republicans have not won a U.S. Senate race in New Jersey since 1972.

Lautenberg is survived by his wife, Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg; six children and their spouses, Ellen Lautenberg and Doug Hendel, Nan and Joe Morgart, Josh and Christina Lautenberg, Lisa and Doug Birer, Danielle Englebardt and Stuart Katzoff, Lara Englebardt Metz and Corey Metz; and 13 grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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