Barney Frank: What it means to be a liberal

Photo credit: “Barney Frank – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2010” by World Economic Forum is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

I originally wrote this profile as part of my semester in the Boston University Washington Journalism program in the fall of 2005. It was published in the New Bedford Standard Times. I stumbled upon it again today and it felt very relevant again in this political moment.

Barney Frank is outraged. And he wants everyone to know why.

Standing in front of a gaggle of reporters and congressional staffers in a small room on Capitol Hill, he grips the podium tightly with one hand and uses the other to gesture sternly at a chart that illustrates the source of his indignation-the sky-rocketing pay rates for corporate executives.

“I have not discovered a race of super-beings,” he says, “who deserve this astronomical compensation.”

Though the issue isn’t as headline-grabbing as terrorism or avian flu, Frank speaks zealously and doesn’t mince words. Even when answering questions from reporters, his responses are tightly reasoned and display the exhaustive knowledge and lightning-quick wit that have led him to be named one of Congress’ brainiest and funniest congressmen in a recent Washingtonian poll of Capitol Hill staffers.

“He’s always intense,” said Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) who has served in the House with Frank for seven years, and has known him for more than 25 years. “He knows how serious this is. The issues we deal with down here are not jokes and the impact things have is very real. He understands that.”

Since Frank was first elected to the House in 1980-the same year Ronald Reagan won the White House-he has seen the Democrats lose control of Congress, defended a president in impeachment proceedings, and witnessed nationwide ideological shifts. Throughout it all, however, he has remained a constant force: fiercely intellectual, devastatingly sharp, and, above all, unabashedly liberal.

Being a liberal “means you are for an economic policy which seeks to reduce the inequality that the capitalist system produces,” Frank said, explaining a political position that has not always been popular during his tenure in Congress.

“It means that you think the government should protect people against being treated poorly because of some characteristic of their personality that shouldn’t be a problem for anybody else.”

Frank’s political passions come, at least in part, from his upbringing. Born in 1940 in Bayonne, N.J., Frank was raised by parents he describes as “very political.” On Saturday nights, the family-Frank is one of four children-would buy the Sunday editions of the major area newspapers. Everybody, Frank said, read the papers.

“We had the enormous good fortune of being raised by parents that took politics seriously,” said Frank’s sister Ann Lewis, the director of communications for Friends of Hillary, Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) re-election effort. “Growing up we knew that who governed was important-talking about it, thinking about it-it was something that mattered.”

One of Frank’s earliest political memories is watching the Senate organized crime hearings held by Senator Estes Kefauver in the early 1950s on television and later the Army-McCarthy hearings.

After graduating from Harvard University in 1962, Frank did graduate work in political science before joining the staff of newly-elected Boston mayor Kevin White in 1968. In 1972 he was elected to the Massachusetts state legislature, where he served for eight years. He also completed a law degree at Harvard before winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1980, replacing Father Robert Drinan, who retired.

Despite his election, 1980 was a bad year for the Democrats. It was a landmark election in which many senior congressional Democrats lost bids for re-election and the balance of power shifted from Democrats to Republicans.

“[It] was the worst year for the Democrats before 1994,” Frank said, drawing a comparison to the year in which Republicans regained control of the House for the first time in nearly 50 years. “A lot of liberals got defeated that year.and Reagan was in there and he was very popular.”

Though the political climate was tending towards the right, the decidedly left-leaning congressman quickly made his mark, earning a reputation for a disarming sense of humor, thorough knowledge of the issues, and remarkable debating abilities.

“I consider him one of the best, if not the best legislator, in the entire Congress. He is probably the best debater,” said Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), a fellow congressman of Frank’s for 19 years, and a colleague on the Financial Services Committee.

When President Clinton was impeached in 1998, Frank was one of his most vocal defenders.

“Not only was he smart, but he weathered his own scandal and knew what tricks were coming,” said Bart Everly, a filmmaker who got to know Frank while filming a documentary about the congressman in the late 1990s.

In 1987, Frank publicly revealed that he was gay and was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote in the following election. In 1990, Frank was reprimanded, but not censured, by Congress after it was revealed that he had employed as a personal aide a male escort who was living in his house and running a prostitution service. Following his punishment by the House, Frank received 66 percent of the vote in the next election.

“All of his skeletons were out of the closet,” Everly said. “Other people were scared of the Republican attack machine.” But not Frank.

Frank has been re-elected 13 times, garnering at least 70 percent of the vote most years. Last year, he received 78 percent of the vote in his bid to represent the state’s Fourth District in Congress.

Though Frank is known for standing firm on his principles, his colleagues note that he is also a fair negotiator.

“I think of Barney as being pretty much a moderate to liberal member, but I don’t think of him as an ideologue,” said Shays, a moderate Republican who often attempts to reach out to Democrats to find consensus on issues. “He’s very comfortable finding the center ground.”

This combination of ideology and pragmatism has made Frank a frequent spokesman for his party. As ranking member of the Financial Services Committee, he has a reputation for working productively with Rep. Michael Oxley, the committee’s Republican chairman. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) calls Frank a “warhorse-someone we repeatedly go to to carry the banner for the Democrats.”

Frank also has the respect of trade and labor groups.

“Anytime there have been issues [important to New Bedford], he’s been very responsive,” said Jim Mathes, president of the New Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce. “You’d be hard pressed to find someone with better constituent service.”

Frank’s popularity extends even beyond the borders of his district. On a recent visit to the capital, Nicole Harrington of Lanesboro in western Massachusetts stopped by Frank’s office even though he is not her representative.

“It’s really admirable for someone to be in his position and be so open about his choices,” Harrington said.

And among the donors to Frank’s re-election campaign are award-winning authors, Broadway producers, and notable playwrights from places as close as Cambridge and as far away as California.

“He espouses many compassionate ideals that I share and respect,” said Robert Lopez, a contributor to Frank’s campaign and one of the creators of the Broadway musical Avenue Q . “He has also been an outspoken opponent of the increasingly rabid right-wing Republican majority.”

Frank’s style-a businesslike approach to politics leavened with moral outrage and sharp sarcasm-may be one reason for his wide appeal. At a recent press conference, he spoke in detail about the laws that govern executive compensation, but it wasn’t until he noted that a particular idea “makes intelligent design look like really hard science” that he really won the room.

Speaking about the ongoing debate surrounding the intelligence that supported the decision to go to war in Iraq, Frank has quipped that “the problem with the war in Iraq is not so much the intelligence as the stupidity.”

“He’s so bright that he is able to understand what people are saying, then . he is able to throw it back at you in ways that can tie your tongue,” Shays said.

This sense of humor has been apparent in Frank since his youth, said Lewis, and is not just a part of a public persona.

“What you see in public is what we see in private-he is smart, he is funny, he is quick-he is also extra warm and loving to children in the family,” Lewis said.

Indeed the walls and shelves of Frank’s office display framed pictures of his nieces and nephews and their children. A handmade, and well-worn, paper nameplate on his desk reads “Uncle Barney” in a childish scrawl.

Family, said Frank, has been important to him politically as well as emotionally. In the early 1980s, his mother appeared in campaign ads for her son, his brother was his campaign manager and his younger sister acted as campaign treasurer, a position she still holds.

“My campaigns are a family affair,” Frank said.

Frank is occasionally perceived to be surly, a phenomenon some attribute to his intensity and an impatience with those who are less serious about important issues. He doesn’t say goodbye before hanging up the phone and he eschews small talk.

“He doesn’t suffer fools gladly and he doesn’t go in for niceties,” said Everly, adding that “I think it’s fun for him on a certain level.”

It is, then, in keeping that Frank is brutally forthright about his political opinions. The congressional vote on the Terri Schiavo case was “one of the most unpopular things I’ve seen this place do in a long time,” he said, and the war in Iraq has been “incompetently handled.” Tax cuts? “A disaster for the country.”

And while other politicians play it coy about their ambitions to higher office, Frank openly admits that he was planning to run for John Kerry’s Senate seat if Kerry had won the presidency.

Though Frank said that President Bush “used the prestige and political leverage that he gained from Sept. 11 to move the country further to the right than it wanted to go,” the congressman also expressed hope that Americans were starting to understand and object to some of the administration’s policies.

“I think where we are is a period of awakening,” Frank said. “Saying ‘I did it because George Bush needed me’ has now become a liability more than an asset.”

Frank said that he thinks this political evolution will give Democrats an “increasingly good chance” to regain control of the House next year, an event that would make him the chairman of the Financial Services Committee.

“That’s a dream job for me,” Frank said, “to get us back to the housing business and working with the financial services industry constructively while also helping consumers.”

Frank hopes he’ll get that chance soon, but in the meantime he’ll keep using his signature brains and wit to fight the Republicans from the trenches.

“I think Barney is the quintessential legislator-he’s good at it, he enjoys the process, he’s well-respected by everybody, even those who don’t agree with him,” Capuano said. “And he’s fun.”