The longest serving openly gay member of Congress won’t seek re-election to the U.S. House in 2012.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) announced his retirement during a press conference at Newton City Hall in Massachusetts on Monday. Had the lawmaker sought re-election, he would have been pursuing a 17th term in Congress.
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Frank later confirmed his intent to retire at the end of next year in a statement issued by his office in which he said he “will not be a candidate for reelection to the House of Representatives in 2012.”
“I began to think about retirement last year, as we were completing passage of the financial reform bill,” Frank said. “I have enjoyed — indeed been enormously honored — by the chance to represent others in Congress and the State Legislature, but there are other things I hope to do before my career ends. Specifically, I have for several years been thinking about writing, and while there are people who are able to combine serious writing with full-time jobs, my susceptibility to distraction when faced with a blank screen makes that impossible.
The Massachusetts Democrat is one of four openly gay members of Congress. The other three are Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) Baldwin is leaving her seat to pursue a run for U.S. Senate, but gay candidate Mark Pocan is seeking to replace her.
Frank, 71, served as a member of the Massachusetts State House in the 1970s and was first elected to Congress in 1980. He serves as the ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee. When Democrats held control of the House during the 111th Congress, he led the way as chairman of the committee for the passage of major financial reform legislation known as Dodd-Frank.
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While announcing his plans to retire from Congress, Frank said during the news conference Monday he plans “to continue to be an advocate of public policy.” The lawmaker said he’d like to debate Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich on the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
“I did not think I had lived a good enough life to be rewarded by Newt Gingrich being the Republican nominee,” Frank said. “It still is unlikely, but I have hopes. Let me say, for example, I intend to continue to be an advocate of public policy. I look forward to debating, to take one important example, the Defense of Marriage Act with Mr. Gingrich. I think he is an ideal opponent for us, when we talk about just who it is, is threatening the sanctity of marriage.”
Gingrich, who helped pass DOMA into law in 1996 when he was House speaker, has been married three times and has confessed to committing adultery.
LGBT groups praised Frank for his years of service and his role as an LGBT advocate during his decades in Congress.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, commended Frank upon news of his retirement and said the lawmaker “exemplified true leadership over his more than 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.”
“As the first openly gay Member of Congress, Barney defied stereotypes and kicked doors open for LGBT Americans,” Solmonese said. “Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act would never have happened without his leadership. But it goes beyond that. His service as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee during a time of great economic upheaval made a gay man one of the most powerful people in the country and he used that power for great good. America, Massachusetts and LGBT people are better off for Barney Frank’s service.”
Chuck Wolfe, CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said the announcement may mean Frank’s political career may be coming to an end, but added the lawmaker’s “legacy will outlive us all.”
“His decision to come out as gay more than two decades ago gave LGBT Americans an authentic voice and a persistent champion in Washington,” Wolfe said. “He has used that voice loudly and often, speaking personally, humorously and effectively about the hopes and challenges of Americans who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. We will miss that voice very much.”
The Victory Fund has endorsed the re-election bids of openly gay U.S. House members Polis and Cicilline. The organization also backs the election to Congress of non-incumbent Pocan as well as Mark Takano in California and State Rep. Marko Liias in Washington State.
Jerame Davis, interim executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, said his organization is “saddened” by Frank’s retirement. The lawmaker helped found the organization in 1999.
“Not only is he full of searing ripostes and witty bon mots, he has been a tireless advocate for LGBT equality for decades,” Davis said. “He has been an original co-sponsor of almost every pro-LGBT piece of legislation introduced in the House and he strongly championed the Hate Crimes Act and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, both of which are now law.”
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Praise for Frank also came from other lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Polis, who’s poised to become the most senior openly gay member of Congress upon Frank’s retirement, commended Frank for his work in Congress on LGBT issues and financial reform.
“Barney Frank was a groundbreaking pioneer and one of the most insightful, knowledgeable and humorous people ever to grace the halls of Congress,” Polis said. “We will miss his leadership on a wide range of issues — from fighting to reign in Wall Street’s excesses and working to stabilize our economy to standing up for equal rights for LGBT Americans and curtailing runaway Pentagon spending. Congressman Frank championed the rights of all Americans, the economic security of all of our families, and a politics of inclusion and hope. It’s a great loss for the Congress but Barney leaves behind an enviable record of accomplishment. I will miss his presence every day.”
Frank took leadership roles in moving forward many pro-LGBT initiatives through Congress, but is perhaps best known for his work on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which he sponsors in the House. The legislation would protect LGBT people against job discrimination in most situations in the public and private workforce.
The lawmaker’s leadership on that bill proved controversial in 2007 when a version passed on the House floor by a vote of 235-184 at the expense of stripping out protections from the legislation for transgender people. Frank moved forward with the non-inclusive bill saying the votes weren’t present to pass ENDA with gender identity language.
But the decision riled transgender activists and many LGBT groups that dropped their support for that version of ENDA.
ENDA never saw a vote in the 111th Congress when Democrats held control of both the House and Senate as well as the White House. Some political observers said backers weren’t sure about defeating a motion to recommit on the House floor that opponents could use to derail the legislation.
Joe Racalto, who worked as a senior policy advisor for Frank and now serves as vice president for Freedom to Work, said Frank was a leader on LGBT issues, including ENDA, even though the legislation never became law. Freedom to Work is a new organization pushing for the passage of the workplace bill.
“Since 1980, Barney Frank has been the representative for LGBT Americans,” Racalto said. “I am both happy for Barney and sad to see him retire. Barney has served as a mentor and friend. Because of his tireless work, my life — as well as the lives of all LGBT Americans — are better. From hate crimes to ENDA to repeal of ['Don't Ask, Don't Tell'], Barney was often the leading voice for our civil rights in Congress. I cannot emphasize enough the impact he has made — It is because of his love for justice and civil rights that ENDA has a solid foundation not only in Congress, but overwhelming support among the American people.”
Frank isn’t the first openly gay person elected to Congress. That distinction goes to the late Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.), who came out in 1983 after a male page revealed at the age of 17 he had a sexual relationship with the lawmaker. Frank made his sexual orientation public later in 1987 during his fourth term in office.
In 1989, Frank found himself in a scandal as a result having engaged in services four years earlier with a male escort named Stephen Gobie. Frank later hired Gobie as a driver despite and used his House privileges to waive 33 of Gobie’s parking tickets. After Frank discovered that Gobie was running a prostitution service out of his Capitol Hill apartment, the lawmaker fired him.
Gobie responded by coming out with his story to the media. In 1990, the House voted to reprimand Frank by a vote 408-18. These efforts in Congress were led by former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) who was later involved in his own scandal by being caught allegedly soliciting sex with a male police officer in a bathroom at the Minneapolis airport. Craig has denied that he’s gay, although Frank later accused him of hypocrisy.