Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank announced on Monday that he will not seek a 17th term in office. Sixteen other House Democrats have announced their retirements, along with six Republicans (who are all seeking higher office). The mass exodus of Democrats leaves political observers wondering if 2012 will be a bad year for President Obama’s party. But Frank, a liberal icon, blames Massachusetts redistricting rather than any national trend for hastening his departure. “I would have had to work very hard,” explained the congressman, who mustered just 54 percent of the 2010 vote. “I think I would have won, but I do know this—it would have been a tough campaign.”
Massachusetts’s new congressional map subtracted more than 300,000 constituents from Frank’s district. Boston’s leafy liberal suburbs—Wellesley, Newton, and Sherborn—remain. Gone is working-class New Bedford, where fishermen benefited from the congressman’s clout. Worse, Frank’s district added some of Republican senator Scott Brown’s electoral strongholds. Seeing the redrawn map, Frank reportedly lamented, “They didn’t do me any favors.”
Maybe not this time around. But Frank owes his long career in no small part to the geographic contortions of his political parcel, which borders Boston and Rhode Island. It so closely resembles a salamander that one would be tempted to term the meandering district a “Barneymander” if early-nineteenth-century governor Elbridge Gerry hadn’t already lent his name to the practice. The politically contrived district explains how the acerbic and scandal-plagued legislator could last so long in public office. Sycophant constituents are rocket fuel to elected narcissists. Massachusetts’s Fourth District let Barney be Barney.
Before the people of Massachusetts’s 4th District selected Barney Frank, God did. Pope John Paul II’s 1980 edict that priests withdraw from electoral politics ended Father Robert Drinan’s tenure in Washington and gave rise to Frank’s. “God’s ways are not our ways,” the clergyman representative reassured dejected followers.
In 1989, Frank’s political obituary seemed all but written when his hustler boyfriend, Stephen Gobie, revealed that he had used the congressman’s townhouse to host clients. The House voted 408–18 to reprimand Frank for fixing 33 of his escort-turned-assistant’s parking tickets and sending misleading letters on congressional stationery to Gobie’s probation officers. A defiant Frank confessed that his biggest mistake was envisioning Gobie as an Eliza Doolittle requiring rehabilitation by his Henry Higgins.
Rather than humbling Frank, the scandal emboldened him. Frank again exploited his office to benefit a paramour—this time with adverse policy rather than tabloid repercussions. As Gretchen Morgensen and Joshua Rosner’s Reckless Endangerment revealed earlier this year, Frank encouraged Fannie Mae in the early 1990s to hire his companion Herb Moses. Fannie Mae generously supported Frank’s family foundation, his political campaigns, and his partner. In turn, the congressman charged with overseeing the housing behemoth became its biggest booster. He spent the last decade assessing Fannie as “fundamentally sound” and dismissing solvency concerns as “artificial.” He tenaciously pressed for “affordable” housing, which the foreclosure crisis revealed as quite unaffordable. “It is a common thing in Washington for members of Congress to have spouses work for the federal government,” he told the Boston Herald, whose “complete political irrelevance” he had celebrated on election night 2010. “There is no rule against it at all.”
Frank was present at the 2007 Maine drug bust of his current boyfriend, James Ready. But like the Herb Moses controversy, the story didn’t get out for several years. Explaining that he was “not a great outdoorsman,” Frank claimed that he “would not recognize most plants,” including the marijuana ones in Ready’s home—coincidentally, a plant that the lawmaker had long sought to decriminalize.
Frank’s serial excuses over the years are of the sort only a true believer could believe. And since Frank served one of the most liberal districts in the United States, true believers went right on believing. Here was a case where a congressman was truly a “representative.”
A mile-a-minute mumbler and go-for-the-jugular debater, Frank insists that he will remain in the political fight. His repeated digs at Newt Gingrich suggest as much. Frank notes, “One of the advantages, to me, of not running for office is I don’t even have to pretend to be nice to people I don’t like.” Some of us never noticed he was trying.