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Franks died late Friday night at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, said Mike DuHaime, his former aide. A Warren resident, Franks had recently been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, but further details were not disclosed.
Franks first gained prominence in the state Assembly, where he represented Union County for 14 years. He then captured the 7th Congressional district seat in 1992, serving four terms before seeking a U.S. Senate seat in 2000, a race he narrowly lost to Democrat Jon Corzine despite being far outspent by his millionaire rival.
However, the two became friendly after that campaign, and Corzine — who later became New Jersey's governor — often sought Franks' advice during his term in the Statehouse. And in 2008, Corzine named Franks — a longtime transportation advocate — to lead an eventually unsuccessful campaign to increase highway tolls to cut state debt and pay for transportation work.
"Bob was one of a kind — smart, compassionate, and principled, he touched the lives of countless New Jerseyans," Corzine said in a statement issued Saturday. "Everyone who knew him will miss his relentless optimism. Those of us who were on the other side of the political aisle always knew that we shared with Bob a common sense of humanity and decency. I'm proud to have called him a friend."
A two-time GOP state chairman, Franks unsuccessfully sought the party's gubernatorial nomination in 2001, losing out to then-Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler. Franks then became head of the Health Care Institute of New Jersey, which represents pharmaceutical and medical technology companies.
"Bob's generosity of time, care for others and boundless spirit inspired a generation of those in public life," DuHaime said. "While his passing deeply saddens all who knew him, we have been so enriched by having had him in our lives."
Born in Hackensack, Franks had been deeply involved in politics since his youth, serving as state chairman of the New Jersey Teenage Republicans. After graduating from college, he played key roles in GOP gubernatorial and congressional before winning an open Assembly seat in 1979, which he held until he won his first House term.
During his second stint as state GOP chairman, Franks used widespread voter discontent with Gov. Jim Florio's tax hike proposals to lead his party to veto-proof majorities in both houses of the Legislature.