Massachusetts: Fourth District|
Rep. Barney Frank (D)
Last Updated June 8, 1999
The political transformation of Massachusetts is nowhere better illustrated than in the Boston suburbs of Brookline and Newton. These were Yankee enclaves a century ago, with avenues built to resemble the sweep of Haussmann's Grand Boulevards in Paris, and villages of giant clapboard houses clustered within a few blocks of commuter railroad stations. Brookline was where The Country Club (the very first one) was established in 1882, and where Joseph Kennedy, an Irish Catholic 20-something banker seeking respectability, moved his family in 1914. Brookline and Newton then were solidly Republican in politics, the political base of leading politicians like Christian Herter, governor of Massachusetts and U.S. secretary of state in the 1950s; as late as 1960, Brookline and Newton and adjacent wards of Boston were electing a Republican congressman. Then came the transformation, personified by the election in 1962 of Michael Dukakis at 29 to the Great and General Court (the legislature). As Massachusetts's university-educated classes became more liberal, and as Brookline's and Newton's Jewish populations grew, and as young liberal-minded families refurbished the graceful old houses, these towns became Democratic bastions. By the 1970s, the Brookline Town Meeting was opening each year with debates over whether they should recite the ''Pledge of Allegiance.'' Brookline and Newton, more than Boston, are the liberal heart of Massachusetts: They voted 69%-29% for Dukakis in 1988, 68%-20% for Bill Clinton in 1992 and again for Clinton 75%-20% in 1996, 65%-34% for Democrat Scott Harshbarger over Governor Paul Cellucci in 1998.
The 4th Congressional District includes Brookline and Newton, which are the political home bases for its congressman, Barney Frank. But they cast only 25% of the district's votes, and this grotesquely shaped district is not all of one piece: Indeed, one setting out to canvass entirely the district's bounds might have to get off the road and step over fences and trudge through marshes. The shape results from successive redistrictings: In 1982, Frank's district was extended south to the old textile mill city of Fall River; in 1992, it lost much of Fall River and gained New Bedford, a great 19th Century whaling port and still home to one of the largest fishing fleets in the United States, with the largest percentage of Portuguese-Americans in the nation. The 4th also curves north to the interior of Plymouth County around old towns like Bridgewater. This is a Democratic district in national politics, but not nearly so Democratic nor as uniformly culturally liberal as Brookline and Newton. There is a bit of most kinds of America here: high-income WASPy Wellesley, French-Canadian mill-worker Fall River, Foxboro with its football stadium, Sharon with a middle-income Jewish population and countrified Dover.
Barney Frank, elected in 1980, is one of the intellectual and political leaders of the Democratic Party in the House--political theorist and pit bull all at the same time. Frank grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, and went to Harvard, where he got to know local politicians as well as political scientists. In 1967, he went to work for newly elected Boston Mayor Kevin White; in 1971, he went to Washington to work for Congressman Michael Harrington. In 1972, Frank was elected to the Massachusetts House from the Back Bay of Boston, then just starting to be a liberal singles neighborhood. In 1980, when Congressman Robert Drinan retired after Pope John Paul II commanded Jesuits to leave elective office, Frank moved to Brookline and ran in the 4th District. With a strong base in Brookline and Newton, he won; keeping them together as redistricting moved the seat down to Fall River; he beat Republican Margaret Heckler 60%-40% in 1982. He has been re-elected by wide margins since.
In the House, Frank soon gained a reputation as one of the smartest talkers and best debaters in the chamber--may be one of the best of all time. At a time when so many members seem to rely on canned speeches produced by staffers and letterhead interest groups, debaters Frank listens to others' arguments and engages them in his inimitable rapid-fire delivery. While he stands at the left end of the American electoral spectrum, there is an element of solid small-c conservatism beneath him. ''Democratic positions are fully consistent with the values of patriotism, free enterprise, working hard for one's self and one's family, and holding people to a standard of behavior fully respectful of the person and property of others,'' he wrote in his 1992 book Speaking Frankly. More recently he said he is for ''capitalism plus,'' that is, market capitalism with welfare state protections, and he has expressed unease at what he considers increasing isolationism in Congress, though he also believes in ''tens of billions'' in cuts for defense spending and has tried to tear down the firewalls around defense and domestic spending, arguing that defense should not be exempt from cuts.
Frank has worked hard, often behind the scenes, on many substantive issues. He took over the subcommittee handling the bill to provide redress to Japanese Americans interned in World War II and got it through the House and signed into law. He has shaped immigration acts from 1986-96: to expand legal immigration, to allow HIV-positive people to enter the country, and to bar states from excluding children of illegal aliens from school. As ranking Democrat on the Courts and Intellectual Property Subcommittee of Judiciary, he helped build a bipartisan coalition that in the 105th Congress linked two related issues, the World Intellectual Property Organization treaties and the protection of intellectual property on the Internet. The result, he said, was ''one bill which preserved the protection of intellectual property without impinging on the freedom necessary to the Internet.'' In addition, the term of copyright was extended by 20 years. After the 1998 election Frank left the ranking position on Intellectual Property and took the ranking position on Banking's Housing Subcommittee. There he worked with Joe Kennedy and HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo to resist Republican initiatives that they believe would gut housing programs. In previous years he worked to create the HOME program of housing block grants to the states, shaping the RTC program that sold low-end housing units acquired by bankrupt S&Ls to low- and moderate-income people, barring housing discrimination against people with AIDS, and blocking a Republican attempt to raise the 30% income cap on public housing rents.
He has also had some bipartisan successes. With Republican Charles Canady, he managed the Lobbying Disclosure Act, barring all amendments so that the House would pass the Senate bill and no conference committee would be necessary. With Bob Dole, he was a lonely voice for auctioning off the digital TV spectrum rather than giving it away free, as most in Congress and the Clinton Administration favored. He also passed a law, vital for the biotech industry, allowing companies to receive patents for processes for artificially manufacturing substances which exist naturally. He and Daniel Patrick Moynihan are co-sponsors of a bill to block the use of tax-exempt municipal bonds for new sports facilities. In 1998, after years of trying, he got passed an amendment limiting the American financial contribution for the expansion of NATO; in celebration, he voted for the defense bill for the first time in years. He and David Bonior secured compromise language on the 1998 IMF funding bill committing the U.S. to do more for workers' rights in countries receiving financial bailouts.
But not until the impeachment hearings of 1998 was Frank able to overshadow another aspect of his career. In May 1987, in a seemingly casual answer to a reporter's question, Frank said he is gay. Then in August 1989, the conservative Washington Times reported that Frank had employed as a personal aide a male prostitute and convicted drug possessor, Steve Gobie, and let him live in his apartment, where the man allegedly carried on his trade. Frank admitted to paying Gobie, but was careful never to use official or campaign funds; he denied that he tolerated prostitution in his apartment and said he had thrown the man out when he suspected it was going on. The Boston Globe called on Frank to resign; his picture appeared on the cover of Newsweek; he called on the ethics committee to investigate. It did and dismissed all but two minor charges (Frank made a few mistakes in declaring which of several parking tickets were entitled to be dismissed because they were incurred in the line of official business). The committee recommended a reprimand but not censure; Frank agreed in a contrite appearance before the House in July 1990; the House voted 287-141 against censure (moved by Newt Gingrich); the vote for reprimand was 408-18. ''I think members will agree that I have always had a reputation for honesty, not always tact or tolerance,'' Frank said to the House. That reputation was one reason he survived and has thrived in the House; his brains, liberal stands, hard work and constituency service helped him not only survive but be overwhelmingly popular in the 4th District.
His admission did cost him any chance of a House leadership position; Tip O'Neill thought it cost him a chance to be the first Jewish speaker. It also made him a leading spokesman on gay rights issues. One was the issue, raised in the 1992 campaign by Bill Clinton and not by Frank or by gay advocacy groups, of gays in the military. To the disappointment of many in the gay community, Frank admitted that allowing open homosexuals to serve in the military would not be accepted by most in Congress or the Pentagon. Taking Senator Sam Nunn's ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' compromise a step further, Frank suggested that gays be allowed to conduct an openly gay lifestyle when off-base without fear of reprisal; but Clinton eventually declined to go so far. In the years since, Frank has criticized the administration and the military because the number of service members discharged for homosexuality has actually increased. Frank and Republican Christopher Shays have sponsored a bill to prohibit employment discrimination on account of sexuality; it has not passed, but the success of Frank and Republican Jim Kolbe in blocking Republican Joel Hefley's amendment to overturn a Clinton executive order prohibiting such discrimination in the civil service suggests there may be, even in a Republican House, a majority for the concept. Frank is also the sponsor of a bill to make domestic partners of federal employees eligible for health insurance and of the bill which would provide federal penalties for hate crimes.
After the Republican victory in November 1994, Minority Whip David Bonior asked Frank to be the Democrats' point man in floor debates; Frank asked whether Bonior wanted him to be such a visible symbol of the party, and Bonior said yes. During the Contract With America debate, Frank prowled the floor, ready to take up a microphone and deliver stinging attacks on Republicans' hypocrisy or cross-examine a freshman with all the mercy of a Harvard Law professor questioning a not-quite-prepared first-year student. His strong and orderly mind, his ability to argue abstract principles in rapid-fire but comprehensible words, were on display--and made him the most feared adversary by the Republican side. But his belief that the Republicans' positions would prove unpopular and cost them their majority has not, or at least not yet, proven true.
Frank also emerged, well before the impeachment crisis, as a defender of Bill Clinton against charges of scandal. He came at these issues as a civil libertarian who is attentive to defendants' rights, and perhaps to memories of the time his father, a truck stop owner, was jailed for contempt of court for refusing to answer questions about his brother in a Hudson County investigation; ''he was the Susan McDougal of his day,'' Frank once said. On the Banking Committee in 1994 he defended Clinton with attack-dog intensity against Whitewater charges; on the Judiciary Committee in October 1997 he and William Delahunt peppered Janet Reno with questions and made tough arguments when Republicans were trying to pressure her to appoint more independent counsels. In those cases, and in impeachment, his goal was clear and, he and many other believe, achieved. After impeachment was voted he said, ''I think we effectively demonstrated the partisan and unfair nature of the House proceedings.'' He did so despite a liking for his chief adversary, Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde. They seem to have a genuine appreciation and regard for each other.
Frank acknowledged that Clinton lied in his deposition in the Paula Jones case and said, ''He screwed up. Bill Clinton is entitled to fairness but not indignation on his behalf. He's not a purely innocent person having suddenly been mugged.'' But Frank also ridiculed the case against him, saying it boiled down to the question: ''What did the president touch and why did he touch it?'' When Republicans argued that Frank's preferred result, censure, would be trivial, he seized on his own experience and said, ''I am struck by those who argued that censure is somehow an irrelevancy, a triviality, something of no weight. I would tell you that having been reprimanded by this House of Representatives, where I'm so proud to serve, was no triviality.'' But in making this valid political point he did himself a personal injustice: The misstatements he made were of the most trivial sort, mere bookkeeping errors; and on the main charges, he stood up, faced the facts and told the truth, however embarrassing, with no assurance that his political career would survive.
Through all his work on national issues, Frank has not neglected the home front. He has worked especially hard on projects in Fall River and, after it was added to the district after the 1990 Census, New Bedford, for which he obtained the creation of a national park commemorating the whaling industry, the funding for a new Route 18 and assistance to the fishing industry. He got Portugal, from which many in New Bedford have emigrated, added to the list of countries for which the United States does not require visas for visitors, in the face of opposition from the Judiciary Committee's leadership and the Clinton Administration. Frank has been re-elected by very wide margins and in 1998 was unopposed.
Safe. A well-known fixture in the Washington political scene, Frank is securely entrenched in this heavily Democratic suburban Boston district. Not even a scandal in 1989 put a dent in his re-election percentage; he is about as safe as they come.
- Pop. 1990: 601,392
- 26.9% rural;
14.4% age 65+;
- 93.6% White,
0.2% Amer. Indian,
2.3% Hispanic origin;
56.3% married couple families;
27.4% married couple fams. w. children;
51.4% college educ.;
median household income: $39,005;
per capita income: $18,963;
median gross rent: $434;
median house value: $170,600.
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