“I’m used to being in the minority. I’m a left-handed gay Jew. I’ve never felt, automatically, a member of any majority” — Barney Frank
I had been planning to do a book review of Barney Frank’s autobiography to commemorate his birthday, today. However, I haven’t gotten around to checking it out or purchasing a copy of it. Anyway, the former congressman is touring the talk-show circuit plugging his book Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage. I want to read Frank’s book for a few reasons. 1. He’s a very interesting, funny person. 2. He remains a very influential person. 3. He did something I had once dreamed of doing. The third reason is probably the most compelling.
I’ve long been a political junkie. There’s a long-lived love-hate relationship to politics in my head. Barney Frank personifies some of my own political aspirations. The main differences between us is that Frank is a much more aggressive, outgoing man and possesses a lot more chutzpah. In my case, there were too many major obstacles to overcome in order to cultivate a career in Nebraska politics.
Also, I want to read Frank because I want to know more about how to make the system work from an insider’s point of view. I want to understand how he became a voice for my community, a community that used to have no political clout.
The future congressman was born Barnett Frank on March 31, 1940, in Bayonne, New Jersey. He was one of four children born to Elsie and Samuel Frank. The family was of Polish and Russian Jewish ancestry. Samuel ran a truck stop in Jersey City.
Barney Frank graduated in 1962 from Harvard College. He then taught undergraduates while preparing for a PhD in Government, but left before finishing his degree. Frank had resigned in order to become the Chief Assistant for Boston mayor Kevin White. He later served as Administrative Assistant to Congressman Michael Harrington. In 1977, Frank graduated from Harvard Law School.
Prior to his law degree, Frank had already been elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He was already controversial during his eight years in office because of his defense of the so-called “Combat Zone”–Boston’s red light district. The area near his district was rife with police corruption, infiltration by the mob, and violence. His controversial proposal involved legalizing sex-for-hire but limited to a small area. In this case it would have been at Boston’s Financial District. Even though the police commissioner endorsed the bill, the proposal didn’t have a serious chance of passage.
1980 witnessed Frank’s entrance into national politics. He took 52% of the vote out of four candidates in the Democratic primary election. He then ran against Republican Richard Jones and again won with 52% of the votes. In 1982, congressional redistricting reconfigured his district to include more conservative constituents. He ran against Republican Margaret Heckler. By focusing upon Heckler’s outspoken support for President Reagan’s tax cuts, Frank was able to capture 60% of the vote.
Voters in Barney’s district ran the gamut from liberal to moderate. They continued to return him to office until 2013, when he decided not to run again. Frank engaged in many major political battles during his tenure as a Massachusetts congressman. He was a major player in union and worker issues, women’s rights, gun control, efforts to help the poor and disadvantaged, and the environment. Frank’s ethical style enabled him to cut deals with hard-nosed conservatives that addressed much-needed reform.
Frank was considered to be one of the most effective members of the House. He was capable of being abrasive and even insulting at times, but these characteristics were overlooked because of Frank’s intelligence, knowledge, and his sharp sense of humor.
Frank’s last big congressional fight was his work to pass meaningful regulations on the banking industry. While meeting with activists, bank lobbyists, and fellow representatives, Frank was tagged as the smartest person in the venue. Supporters and critics, alike, say he knew which agreements to make in order to advance his cause. In the end the Dodd-Frank Bill won approval.
To many Americans, Barney Frank is a representative of LGBT rights. Frank was the second congressman to come out of the closet. He was so well respected by his peers and the press that his political career was not damaged very much. Even though his coming out was a major national news story, Frank used it to expand his credibility. However, the news did adversely affect one political candidacy. He could no longer be a viable candidate as Speaker of the House.
Frank once told the story about then Speaker Tip O’Neil’s reaction to his Frank’s pending decision to come out. O’Neil was very supportive of the Massachusetts congressman and even said that he had hoped that one day Frank would become Speaker of the House. Later, O’Neil told his own press secretary, Chris Matthews, “Chris, we might have an issue to deal with. I think Barney Frank is going to come out of the room.”
Frank has had the support of Republican conservatives in his coming out ordeal. Massachusetts state senator David Locke from Frank’s congressional district invited Frank to march alongside him at the Memorial Day parade. Arch-conservative Alan Simpson of Wyoming supported Frank’s efforts to remove the anti-gay rule from an immigration bill. Simpson also said he admired Frank’s courage to come out of the closet.
Frank was able to successfully weather one major scandal. That was his relationship with prostitute Stephen Gobie. Frank did not attempt to skirt the issue. Instead, he was upfront and honest about incidents involving the affair. The House Ethics Committee could find no evidence for any official wrong-doing.
Shortly after his coming out, in 1987, Frank began dating economist Herb Moses. The relationship lasted eleven years until an amicable parting in 1998. Moses was the first partner of an openly gay member of Congress to receive spousal benefits. At the time, the pair was considered by the press as Washington’s most powerful and influential gay couple.
In his last year in office, Frank became the first member of Congress to marry a person of the same sex, while in office. In early July of 2012 Frank and longtime partner James Ready tied the knot.
It turns out that Barney Frank has proven himself as one of the most effective, intelligent, and funniest members of Congress. He continues to be influential in many circles and is a strong advocate for human rights. He is one of the most interesting politicos alive, today.