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Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Lautenberg Retirement Ends Potential May-December Senate Fight With Booker

Feb 14, 2013
Originally published on February 14, 2013 7:21 pm

The potential Democratic Party contest for a U.S. Senate seat between 89-year-old Sen. Frank Lautenberg and 43-year-old Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker had been shaping up to be a generational battle royale.

Alas, it won't happen now that Lautenberg has announced that he won't run for re-election in New Jersey's 2014 Senate race. In a statement, the octogenarian senator said:

"I will be traveling to my hometown of Paterson tomorrow to announce that I will not seek re-election in 2014. This is not the end of anything, but rather the beginning of a two-year mission to pass new gun safety laws, protect children from toxic chemicals, and create more opportunities for working families in New Jersey. While I may not be seeking re-election, there is plenty of work to do before the end of this term, and I'm going to keep fighting as hard as ever for the people of New Jersey in the U.S. Senate."

Lautenberg surprised many a Congress watcher with his Thursday announcement. Before then, he seemed to show every indication that he would run again.

It was an intention that seemed only to draw new energy by the day from the way the ambitious Booker entered the race.

In a move that appeared to many observers to be aimed at pushing Lautenberg to decide to retire, Booker pre-emptively announced last year that he was exploring a 2014 Senate run before Lautenberg made his re-election plans known.

Booker's was an act that clearly frosted Lautenberg, who grew entertainingly snippy on Capitol Hill whenever reporters asked him about the two-term Newark mayor, a political star who has benefited from his energetic leadership of a troubled city and a flair for self-promotion and tweeting.

Lautenberg at one point told reporters that Booker might need a "spanking" for not abiding by political protocol by failing to give him the chance to announce whether or not he would run for re-election.

Lautenberg also recently told reporters who stopped him in a U.S. Capitol corridor that Booker was "exceptionally aggressive." He didn't mean it as a compliment.

"He can do anything he wants. I just want him to take care of Newark where I have an office," Lautenberg said. Then, sounding like a fan at a sporting event, the senator chanted: "Defense, defense," suggesting he didn't plan on making things easy for Booker.

With his decision, the veteran senator who has had two separate stints in the Senate, from 1982 to 2001 and from 2003 to the present, was acknowledging political reality.

A Monmouth University poll released on Valentine's Day was the latest with bad news for the senator. The poll found 40 percent of Democratic primary voters supporting Booker for Senate, while just 25 percent backed Lautenberg.

And in a finding that contained both good news and bad news for Lautenberg, the poll found only 34 percent of New Jersey voters saying that his advanced age was a concern. But the pollsters speculated that was likely because many voters didn't know his age. Only 39 percent estimated his age to be 80 or older.

The percentage of voters aware of his age was likely to be far higher by the time the primary election date rolled around, if not through Booker himself then his allies. During Lautenberg's 2008 re-election campaign, his age was made into an issue by his Republican opponent.

Lautenberg's decision to retire obviously clears the field of the person who was likely to give Booker his greatest challenge for the Democratic nomination.

The White House issued the following statement from President Obama:

"Frank is a steadfast champion of the people of New Jersey. Throughout his time in the Senate, Frank has fought tirelessly for workers, veterans, members of our military and their families, and immigrants, and he continues to make extraordinary contributions to our nation's safety, and the health and welfare of our citizens. His service in World War II is a testament to his character and deep commitment to public service. I look forward to working with Frank on critical issues before us these next two years, and Michelle and I wish him and Bonnie all the best."

Lautenberg, one of the richest people in the Senate, is the son of Eastern European immigrants (his father was a textile worker). The senator made his fortune in business as a founder of Automatic Data Processing or ADP, the nation's largest payroll processing firm.

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