Barney Frank Talks Future
Barney Frank is office-less a few hours after the Jan. 3 swearing-in ceremony for the 113th Congress, having moved out of the large office he once occupied in the Rayburn House Office Building a few weeks earlier. The 73-year-old former congressman holds a folded newspaper under his arm and shuffles into a largely hidden room in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building.
It is a bittersweet day for the Massachusetts Democrat. Thirty-two years earlier, he was sworn in as the representative for Massachusetts’s 4th District. Eight years before that, he was sworn into the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
For the first time in 40 years, Barney Frank holds no public office. But talking about the future of the LGBT-rights movement and American politics he shows no signs of fading quietly. Although he says he’ll miss the drafting of legislation and passing of laws, Frank is looking forward to his own form of retirement, which, he says, will include public speaking and a couple books.
’’I’m looking forward to working less hard and being under less pressure and having less tension,’’ Frank says. ’’I’m just tired and my energy is gone,’’ he adds, attributing the four years of the financial crisis that he witnessed from his post on the House Financial Services Committee as contributing to his exhaustion.
Frank’s place in the history of the gay-rights movement is indisputable. The first member of Congress to voluntarily come out as gay, in 1987, Frank earned a reputation on Capitol Hill for his quick wit, understanding of financial affairs and ferocious liberalism. He was a champion of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the House, with his Massachusetts colleague Ted Kennedy leading the charge in the Senate.
As he notes, his political career has largely paralleled the gay-rights movement, having first been elected to public office a few years after the Stonewall Riots. Frank is in many ways a politician from a different era, and he leaves office at a time when momentum is truly on the side of equality.
With the largest number of out lawmakers to ever serve in Congress and the most LGBT-friendly president in American history set to be sworn in for a second term Jan. 21, Frank reflects on what’s been accomplished, and what’s still to come.
METRO WEEKLY: Are you glad to be done?
BARNEY FRANK: Yes. This is voluntary, my decision to leave. I’ve been back and forth. In 2010, I thought I wouldn’t run again. I thought I’d have one more term. I was too tired and doing full-time politics either for myself or for other political people since October of 1967. And I’m married and look forward to time with Jim.
And then when the Republicans took the House back I said, ’’Well, if I leave now it’ll look like I’m being a sorehead that I wouldn’t stay as financial chairman.’’ And so I was going to do only one more term and then they changed the congressional districts and my problem was they changed the district I would be representing so drastically that I would’ve been going to 325,000 new people to ask them to vote for me as their member of Congress for one term. And I couldn’t do that. I think party responsibility is to work on people’s problems and issue and you can’t say, ’’You know what, vote for me. But, by the way, if a problem arises 18 months from now I won’t be able to do much about it because I’ll be gone six months after that.’’ So it accelerated and then once that happened I’ve been very happy. I’ve been looking forward to doing other things.
And on the positive side, I want to write. I have a great respect for the written word. Some people can write while they’re doing other things. Former Sen. [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan could do that - a great senator and great author. I can’t do that. So I now will have a major opportunity to write a couple of books. I’m looking forward to that.
MW: What’s the first book?
FRANK: First book is about what liberalism should be. Basically, I believe we should acknowledge that of the two parties we are the ones that understand the positive role that government can play in our lives. And we need to figure out how to get people to understand that better.
The second thing will be a history of the political activity around here. Accidentally, my political career and the gay-rights movement are exactly the same age. I got elected to the state Legislature in 1972 - three years after Stonewall. I rode in, as a candidate, the second gay-pride parade in Boston history in 1972. I filed the first gay-rights legislation in Massachusetts in 1972 and Massachusetts was probably the fourth or fifth state to do that. And I got here in 1981 and I have been on the floor as a member of the House for every debate and vote on LGBT rights ever, so I want to write about that.
MW: Has the atmosphere here changed since you first arrived in Washington?
FRANK: It mostly changed in 2010 when the tea party people won. I understand it’s very poisonous, but if you go back, from 2003 to 2007 I was the ranking minority member of the Financial Services Committee, the chairman was Mike Oxley (R-Ohio), and we worked together. He was in charge, but I had a real influence and it was a civil relationship.
And then I became chairman in 2007 when George Bush was president and we cooperated with the Bush administration. The secretary of the treasury, Hank Paulson, who was there during the financial crisis, asked me to write the foreward to his book about his experiences. We had differences and we argued - partisanship is a good thing - but we could come to a deal. Now, the deal was never 50-50.
Then the Democrats did pretty well when we had Obama as president and the House and the Senate. Things broke down in 2011 after this right-wing group took over the Republican Party and won the House in 2010. Now they’re starting to come apart and I have some optimism that people in the Republican Party are now understanding how much damage they are doing to themselves by having this right-wing group in power.
MW: Many people described this past election as a ’’watershed moment’’ for gay rights because of the marriage wins and President Obama’s re-election.
FRANK: And not just because the president came out for marriage. As early as May, you had liberal political analysts saying, ’’Oh, this is going to be a big problem for Obama. It’s going to hurt him in North Carolina.’’ Instead, Romney was complaining that it became a big political plus for Obama. Yes, it was a watershed year because this issue that everybody has been afraid of turned out to be a big winner for the Democrats.
MW: Do you think the game has changed forever on these issues?
FRANK: Yes. I think we have broken the back of anti-LGBT prejudices. We have to still keep working, but I think within 10 years we’ll have pretty full legal equality; that is, a fully trans-inclusive bill banning employment discrimination. We couldn’t get that done the last time. Next time the Democrats have the House, Senate and the president, we will get that.
I think the Supreme Court will do away with DOMA. But if it doesn’t, again, the next time the Democrats control the presidency, the House and the Senate, we’ll get rid of DOMA. And I don’t see a Supreme Court decision coming yet that says everybody has a right to same-sex marriage, but I believe in well over half the country people will have that right state by state.
MW: A lot of people think the Supreme Court will rule against DOMA, but the Proposition 8 case seems to raise a lot of questions as to whether the right of same-sex couples to marry is protected under the Constitution.
FRANK: I think it was a mistake to have brought the Prop. 8 case. I wish that some of the people out there and [Ted] Olson and [David] Boies paid more attention to Mary Bonauto, the lawyer for [Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders]. She is our Thurgood Marshall. She is a brilliant lawyer, a brilliant political strategist. She’s the one who developed the DOMA cases and the equal-protection argument. And then in California, some people came in and saved us because there’s a Supreme Court precedent against same-sex marriage. What they did was adopt the Colorado precedent, because remember the Prop. 8 decision didn’t say there’s a right constitutionally to same-sex marriage everywhere in America. It said that if a state has once allowed everybody in that state to be married - same sex or opposite sex - and then takes it away only for the same-sex people, that’s illegitimate. It’s what they did in Colorado with regards to antidiscrimination.
My guess is the Supreme Court will affirm the Prop. 8 decision, not go into the broader ’’Everybody has the right to marry.’’ That’ll mean, by the way, in the Ninth Circuit Court people will have a right to same-sex marriage in California, but not in Oregon, Washington or Hawaii. Those both are based on existing Supreme Court doctrine.
MW: For the Republican Party going forward, do you think they have a future if they don’t catch up to some of these issues?
FRANK: Sure they have a future, and particularly because they gerrymandered in 2010 and it’s going to be harder for us to take the House back. On the other hand, one of the things I want to do and I am optimistic about the presidency with young people and Hispanics, but we should be doing better among white men. And that’s one of the things I want to talk about in my book is how to do that.
But I think they have a real crisis. If they do not break the grip of the tea party they will be very much a minority party. In the short term, they have a real problem because breaking that is going to be messy.
I was talking to a Republican senator the other night at the airport when I was waiting for Jim, my husband. I mentioned to him that the House Republicans were now thinking about changing the [fiscal cliff] deal, and he said, ’’Boy, I went over a couple weeks ago to talk to the Republicans from my state to try to get them to be more reasonable. They’re fucking nuts. We get the shit pounded out of us for being too much for the rich and they don’t understand that.’’
Yeah, they’ll survive. The question is how long will it take them and at what price. But they’ll have minority status for a while.
MW: How long do you think it will take them?
FRANK: They’re getting so pounded and I think what’s happening too is some of their supporters and funders are saying this is crazy. I believe, for example, that when the debt limit comes up that’s a real problem for them because their fundamentalists are saying, ’’We won’t allow the debt limit to go up unless they cut Social Security and Medicare,’’ which is an insane political position, as well as being immoral.
And I think they’re going to have to crack. I think they’re going to have to give in. I think what’s going to happen is there’s going to be a battle from now until the next presidential election between crazy people and mainstream conservatives.
MW: You had some harsh criticism for Log Cabin Republicans last year when you labeled them ’’Uncle Toms.’’
FRANK: Absolutely. Still do.
MW: Do you think there’s any merit to what they’re trying to do to make the Republican Party more inclusive?
FRANK: There is merit to what they’re trying to do. My problem is they consistently claim to be successful when they are not.