WASHINGTON -- Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, the last of the World War II veterans in the Senate, is retiring at the end of this term, he said Thursday.
Lautenberg, who turned 89 last month, had been planning to run for reelection in 2014. This year, however, Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, indicated interest in the job and began forming a campaign committee to explore the option.
Booker is not the only potential candidate, and the prospect of an open Senate seat could set up a scramble among Democrats. Holding the New Jersey seat will be a high priority for the party since Democrats already have a number of seats at risk in the 2014 election and are expected to be on defense as they seek to retain control of the Senate.
While New Jersey has been solidly Democratic, “a messy primary could provide Republicans with an opening in the general election,” Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, wrote recently.
Lautenberg plans to travel to his hometown of Paterson to make the retirement plans official after five terms and more than 30 years in the Senate.
“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,” the senator said in a statement. “While I may not be seeking reelection, there is plenty of work to do before the end of this term and I'm going to keep fighting as hard as ever.”
A cancer survivor, Lautenberg is the son of immigrants who enlisted in the Army Signal Corps in Europe shortly after graduating from high school, according to his office.
With his retirement, the only World War II veterans left in Congress are Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Ralph M. Hall (R-Texas).
After the war, Lautenberg went into business, founding the payroll firm Automatic Data Processing with two boyhood friends. He is now among the wealthier members of the Senate, according to financial disclosure forms.
After being elected to the Senate in 1981, and serving for several terms, Lautenberg retired in 2000, only to be pressed back into service in 2002, winning office after fellow Democratic Sen. Bob Torricelli dropped out of the race shortly before the election amid a mounting political scandal.
Lautenberg has been a reliable Democratic vote in the Senate and has been particularly outspoken on issues of gun violence and income inequality, most recently pointing to his own wealth as an example that some Americans can shoulder a heavier tax burden.
The White House praised Lautenberg for his "extraordinary contributions to our nation’s safety, and the health and welfare of our citizens," in a statement released Thursday.
[For the Record, 2:12 p.m. PST Feb. 14: This post has been updated to include the White House's response to Lautenberg's decision.]
Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.