By ANGELA DELLI SANTI and KATIE ZEZIMA | AP
PATERSON, N.J. (AP) — It had all the makings of a goodbye: a triumphant return to his hometown, a standing ovation, signs declaring him a legend, even a "We love you, Frank!" shouted from the back of the room.
But U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg made one thing clear: He's not going anywhere yet.
The day after announcing he won't seek re-election next year, Lautenberg reflected on his life and career and simultaneously dug in his heels, listing off a policy agenda he planned to carry out during the two years he has left in office.
"Is it too late to change my mind?" he quipped, smiling.
Lautenberg, the oldest member of the Senate at 89, made no mention of any Democrat he might like to succeed him.
His revelation Thursday that he won't run again cleared the way for Newark Mayor Cory Booker to accelerate his campaign to replace Lautenberg. Booker's announcement in December that he intended to run for the seat had angered Lautenberg, who had wanted the Democratic mayor to hold off until he decided his plans.
Standing at a podium in an old mill building named after him, Lautenberg said he still had a lot of work to do.
"I'm not announcing a retirement," Lautenberg said. "I'm announcing today that I will be continuing on my mission to do the right thing wherever I can."
That mission, he said, includes pushing gun control measures, protecting children from toxic chemicals and air pollution and ensuring that working families are not left behind.
Lautenberg said he plans to fight against global warming, because "we don't want to see Superstorm Sandy again." He also will work to enhance rail access, long a pet project.
The announcement was a homecoming for Lautenberg, who grew up poor in Paterson. His father worked in a silk factory and died at 43, which spurred his son to fight for workplace safety rules. One of the machines his father worked on is across the street at a museum.
"My parents didn't have materially valuable things to leave to me, but they left values," he said.
Lautenberg held himself up as the embodiment of the American dream — a kid who, thanks to the G.I. Bill, attended Columbia even though he could "barely spell it," then went on to found a multimillion-dollar company.
Lautenberg said he wanted to hold the announcement at a hot dog shop, but couldn't find one that could accommodate the throng of media and who's who of New Jersey Democrats.
He did not take questions, but said in a media scrum afterward that he wanted to spend more time with his family.
"It's an appropriate time to allow someone else to follow," he said. "I don't do it because I want to escape something."
He would not say who he would endorse to take his seat.
"I'd like to have my wife do it," he joked, "but she's busy."
Early public opinion polls had showed Booker as a strong favorite over the incumbent to keep the seat in Democratic hands, but Booker's nascent campaign had been largely on hold until Lautenberg made a decision. Other Democrats, including Rep. Frank Pallone, are also mulling runs.
No Republican has publicly expressed interest in the seat, but a spokesman for the national party viewed Gov. Chris Christie's success in New Jersey as "a hopeful sign" for the GOP's chances even though New Jersey voters haven't sent a Republican to the Senate in 40 years.
Lautenberg first won election to the Senate in 1982.
Though he has been easily elected five times and is the Senate's last veteran of World War II, Lautenberg was facing growing pressure to step down. He has beaten back health problems in recent years. Some within the party noted that if Lautenberg were to die in office, Christie would get to name a temporary successor.
Delli Santi reported from Trenton, N.J.
During his town hall meeting in Somerset County on Tuesday Gov. Chris Christie said he believes there should be no limits on the amount of money people can donate to political campaigns, as long as they disclose their contributions within a 48-period, according to nj.com.