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Frank Lautenberg, five-term senator from N.J., dies

TRENTON -- The next time a flight attendant reminds you there's no smoking or you witness a teenager getting carded at a liquor store, think of Frank Lautenberg.

The liberal Democratic senator from New Jersey left his mark on the everyday lives of millions of Americans, whether they know it or not. In the 1980s he was a driving force behind the laws that banned smoking on most U.S. flights and made 21 the drinking age in all 50 states.

Lautenberg, a multimillionaire businessman who became an accomplished -- if often underestimated -- politician, died yesterday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan after suffering complications from viral pneumonia.

At 89, he was the oldest person in the Senate and the last of 115 World War II veterans to serve there.

"He improved the lives of countless Americans with his commitment to our nation's health and safety," President Barack Obama said in a statement, "from improving our public transportation to protecting citizens from gun violence to ensuring that members of our military and their families get the care they deserve."

The Senate observed a moment of silence in Lautenberg's memory, and at the White House the flag was lowered to half-staff.

Lautenberg served nearly three decades in the Senate in two stints, beginning with an upset victory in 1982 over Republican Rep. Millicent Fenwick, the pipe-smoking, pearl-wearing patrician who was the model for the cartoon character Lacey Davenport in "Doonesbury."

Lautenberg won his last race in 2008 at age 84, becoming the first New Jersey politician ever elected to five Senate terms.

"People don't give a darn about my age," he said then. "They know I'm vigorous. They know I've got plenty of energy."

Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, widely considered a possible Republican presidential candidate for 2016, has two key decisions to make: Whom to appoint to fill Lautenberg's seat in the short term, and when to let voters have their say on who will fill it until the term expires in January 2015.

Over the years, Lautenberg was a reliable Democratic vote on such issues as unions, guns and the environment. A native of one of the most congested and heavily industrialized and polluted states, he worked to secure hundreds of millions of dollars for mass transit projects, ardently defended Amtrak and pushed for money for the Superfund toxic-waste cleanup program.

Lautenberg was the author of a 1984 law that threatened to withhold federal highway money from states that did not adopt a drinking age of 21, a measure that passed amid rising alarm over drunken driving. By 1988, every state was in compliance with the law, which has been widely credited with reducing highway deaths.

Born in Paterson, N.J., he was the son of Polish and Russian Jewish immigrants. He served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II. With the help of the GI Bill he received an undergraduate degree in economics from Columbia University.

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