Frank: Leaving the arena but not the fight

Barney Frank

Something changed for U.S. Rep. Barney Frank between February and November of this year. In February, he announced he would seek re-election in 2012, to a 17th term in office. And on Monday, November 28, he announced this current term would be his last.

The announcement was big political news on the front pages of most media outlets this week, but it is than just front page news for the LGBT community. It is the loss of the community’s most powerful player in the national political arena. Frank is not only one of just four openly gay members of Congress; he is the most senior, the one with the most legislative know-how, and the one with the greatest chance of getting pro-LGBT measures passed.

It was Frank who made the critical deal that led to passage of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 1993—a compromise that was unpopular with the community but far better than the complete ban on gays that many in Congress sought. And it was Frank who helped lead the charge with Rep. Patrick Murphy in repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) through a bill passed last year. It was Frank who decided to send through the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) without gender identity in 2007 and saw it passed by the House. And it was Frank who agreed to add gender identity to the bill during the last term even though he knows it won’t pass the Republican-controlled House.

Frank acknowledged in a press conference Tuesday that he doesn’t believe ENDA will pass unless Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House. But even more important may be the absence of Frank himself.

In explaining his decision to retire at the end of this term, Frank said he does not have the energy or capacity to wage a full-time campaign for re-election, now that his Congressional district has been redrawn to include more than 300,000 new constituents in some geographic areas of Massachusetts that he is not familiar to or with. He said he had “always” planned to retire before he turned 75 and that addressing the concerns of these new constituents “requires a time commitment longer than the next two years.”

That would certainly be true of ENDA, too. Though the bill has been tossed around in Congress—in one form or another—for 38 years, its inclusion of gender identity is a relatively new wrinkle that will likely require several more years to see any advancement.

Frank said this week he intends to continue working on some issues as a private citizen, but his main focus seemed to be on financial reform and defense spending. He did suggest a willingness to provide some pro bono work on “gay rights,” but was not specific about where, when, or what. At the Washington, D.C., press conference on Tuesday, Frank offered that he thinks ENDA might do well to follow the example of a recently passed bill in Massachusetts. That bill prohibited discrimination based on gender identity in employment, but left out the issue of public accommodation (an issue that has been effectively thwarted by opponents who have characterized it as a threat to children in public restrooms).

Even so, Frank acknowledged—albeit indirectly—the impact of his absence, saying it is “important” to have openly LGBT in Congress to drive home the reality of discrimination.

“The best antidote to prejudice is reality,” said Frank, in the Newton, Massachusetts, press conference Monday. Frank said he was “proud” to have “voluntarily” acknowledge publicly that he was gay in 1987.

Frank’s acknowledging he was gay did not cost him the support of voters, but voter support began to erode over the past few re-elections and, in 2010, he won re-election with only 54 percent of the vote—well below his previous low of 68 percent.

It seemed inevitable that Frank would begin contemplating retirement, not just because of the tough campaign, but because he was 71—an age when most people long to retire from constant work demands.

Frank also acknowledged in February that he had had some “concerns” about his cardiac health and cataracts on his eyes. He had required a quintuple bypass in 1999 but, he said in February that his doctors were telling him no surgery was in his near future and the cataracts were an easy fix.

Frank said he had made a tentative decision in July 2010 to retire at the end of the current term. He had just watched President Obama sign a landmark piece of legislation—often referred to as the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill—that was aimed at preventing such “too big to fail” companies as Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch from putting the nation’s economy in peril.

“I spent a very busy and somewhat stressful four years with the financial crisis,” said Frank, “…I then had, as is appropriate, a very spirited campaign for re-election” and Republican conservatives took over the House. The Republican takeover, he said, prompted him to reconsider his tentative decision because he was afraid the announcement would “weaken my influence” in protecting some of the gains he had helped achieve.

That, coupled with the loss of a Congressional seat in Massachusetts due to redistricting, put pressure on Frank to announce early –in February 2011—that he would seek re-election in 2012. But Frank said he was “ambivalent” about that decision to run again because “there are other things in my life I’d like to do,” such as “writing, teaching, and lecturing.” He also hinted he might consider some pro bono appearances on “gay rights.”

Ultimately, said Frank, it was the final outcome of the Congressional re-districting –re-districting that “substantially changed” his district—that changed his mind about 2012. But age was a factor, too.

“It was always clear I’d be retiring after the next term,” said Frank. “I would be a couple months short of my 75th birthday after the conclusion of the next Congress. And I have always said that I would not be serving in elected office at that age. Some people can do it. I know my own capacities and energy level, and it would have been a mistake.”

Frank said nothing about his health at the two press conferences this week but it seemed clear that the physical stress of a campaign was not something he felt up to.

“I think I would have won,” said Frank, when asked whether his decision to retire was based on his increasingly tough re-election votes, “but I do know this… it would have been a tough campaign.”

Frank sounded tired and somewhat reluctant about his announcement at first, but he seemed to warm up to the idea during the first 40-minute news conference Monday as he began talking about the prospects of being able to speak freely as a private citizen. One idea that seemed particularly interesting to him was do such things as debate Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich on the Defense of Marriage Act.

“I think he is an ideal opponent for us when we talk about just who it is who is threatening the sanctity of marriage,” said Frank, an obvious reference to Gingrich being on his third marriage. It was a sign that, while Frank is leaving the political arena, he is still a political animal.

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