Former U.S. Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, an Ohio Democrat who was a feisty self-made millionaire before he began a long career fighting big business in Washington, died Wednesday night. He was 90.
Metzenbaum died at his home near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said Joel Johnson, his former chief of staff. No cause of death was given.
During 18 years on Capitol Hill, until his retirement in 1995, Metzenbaum came to be known as “Senator No” and “Headline Howard” for his abilities to block legislation.
Metzenbaum was a firebrand who often didn’t need a microphone to hold a full auditorium spellbound while dropping rhetorical bombs on big oil companies, the insurance industry, savings and loans, and the National Rifle Assn., to name just a few favorite targets.
Unabashedly liberal, the former labor lawyer and union lobbyist considered himself a champion of workers and was a driving force behind the law requiring 60-day notice of plant closures.
He was also the Senate’s prime sponsor of the Brady Bill, requiring background checks and a waiting period for handgun purchases.
When other liberals shied away from that label, Metzenbaum embraced it, winning reelection in 1988 from Ohio voters who chose Republicans for governor and president, and by wider margins than either George Voinovich or George H.W. Bush.
That victory produced his third, final and most productive term in the Senate.
When it was over, in 1995, he started a new career as a consumer advocate, heading the Consumer Federation of America.
Born June 4, 1917, Metzenbaum grew up in poverty and prejudice on Cleveland’s east side.
He worked his way through Ohio State University selling flowers, playing trombone in a National Youth Administration band, selling magazines, renting bicycles and peddling razor blades.
Metzenbaum made his first big money when he and a partner got the idea for a well-lighted parking lot at Cleveland Hopkins Airport that was staffed 24 hours.
The enterprise expanded to Cincinnati and San Juan, Puerto Rico, and eventually became APCOA, the world’s largest parking lot company.
His former partner, Ted Bonda, maintained that Metzenbaum would have ended up among the world’s richest men if he’d stayed in business.
Bonda and Metzenbaum started one of the country’s first car-rental agencies, now Avis.
Metzenbaum once described himself as “born knowing how to make money.”
He bragged about his ability to take advantage of tax loopholes, but as a senator said he sought to erase loopholes favoring the wealthy.
Metzenbaum got into politics right out of law school and spent eight years in the Ohio Legislature.
A political miscalculation led to his defeat by John Glenn in a ferocious 1974 Senate primary.
Metzenbaum had been contrasting his business background with Glenn’s military and astronaut credentials, saying his opponent had “never worked for a living.”
Glenn’s reply came to be known as the “Gold Star Mothers” speech. He told Metzenbaum to go to a veterans’ hospital and “look those men with mangled bodies in the eyes and tell them they didn’t hold a job. You go with me to any Gold Star mother and you look her in the eye and tell her that her son did not hold a job.”
Metzenbaum won Ohio’s other Senate seat in 1976.
In the Senate, Metzenbaum became a master of the rules and a constant presence in the often-empty chamber, where he posted an aide to scout for unexpected amendments or hastily scheduled floor action on single-interest bills.
Former Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.) once compared Metzenbaum to an airport security guard: “You know he’s going to X-ray your baggage, so you have to be clean.” His filibusters and stall tactics were so successful that the mere threat of Metzenbaum opposition was often enough to win concessions. Once, when a two-week filibuster was cut off and Metzenbaum was still determined to block action on lifting natural gas price controls, he and a partner sent the Senate into round-the-clock sessions by demanding roll call votes on 500 amendments.
Another year, he held up 80 judicial appointments until his colleagues agreed to schedule consideration of a bill he considered vital.
Metzenbaum claimed to have single-handedly saved billions of tax dollars by blocking special tax breaks and pork-barrel programs.
In 1982, the Washington Post tallied the price tag of legislation he blocked that year and came up with a minimum of $10 billion. In time, Metzenbaum evolved from minority-party commando to majority-party subcommittee chairman and became known as much for the legislation he moved as for the bills he blocked.
He headed panels with jurisdiction over labor and antitrust, and took on such issues as pension protection, workplace safety, the right to strike, age discrimination, food labeling, baby formula pricing, retail price-fixing, insurance antitrust and cable television monopolies.
Metzenbaum survivors include his wife, Shirley, and four daughters.