As quixotic as it may sound, I believe that government can do much good — from protecting our civil rights to providing a much-needed social safety net to vulnerable people. Yet, few politicians move me in the way that certain rock stars, comedians, poets or civil rights leaders move me. Most politicos, including those who have honorably served our country, seem muted, aloof, a bit slow on the uptake without their handlers — humorless. Except for Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the longest serving openly gay member of Congress, who announced on Nov. 28 that he is retiring from Congress in 2012. Frank, who was first elected to Congress in 1980, has the passion of Harvey Milk, the integrity of Martin Luther King, Jr., the wit of Jon Stewart and the legislative smarts of Ted Kennedy.
I’ve never met Frank, but like many people, I’ll miss Frank’s presence on Capitol Hill. His legislative acumen on issues ranging from civil rights to finance will be sorely missed.
In his 30 years in Congress, Frank has worked tirelessly on civil rights — from supporting reparations for Japanese-Americans who were unjustly interred during World War II to working for affordable housing for elderly and disabled people to championing LGBT rights.
Many of us, including, I suspect, a number of the folks in Congress, are clueless about how our financial system works. Frank is known (even by his opponents) as being a financial maven. A former chair of the House Financial Services Committee, Frank co-wrote with former Sen. Christopher Dodd, the Dodd-Frank bill that overhauled our financial regulations.
“He’s the smartest guy in the room,” Steve Bartlett, head of the Financial Services Roundtable told The New York Times. “In a debate, you want to be on the same side as Barney, and if you’re not on the same side, you should re-evaluate being in the debate at all.”
Frank is many things besides being gay – a graduate of Harvard Law School, a legislator, and a bit of a (lovable) curmudgeon. You gotta love a guy who says that he’ll enjoy it when he quits Congress and “I don’t even have to pretend to try to be nice to people I don’t like.”
But Frank’s openness about his sexuality has particular meaning for LGBT people. Before he became the first member of Congress to voluntarily come out in 1987, I hadn’t heard of any federally elected official who was openly gay without shame. Frank demonstrated that being LGBT need not impede your career. “Some thought that discussing his sexual orientation might hinder his ability to push legislation or advance to the position of committee chair,” the Blade’s Lou Chibbaro Jr. wrote in an e-mail. “He showed his constituents in Massachusetts and the national media that being openly gay wouldn’t hold him back from being a key player in the U.S. House of Representatives and chair of one of the most important House committees.”
I have no illusion that Frank is cuddly. He’s been known to make reporters tremble. As a journalist, I’d feel the need to be well-armed before interviewing him. Yet as Frank asked an interviewer, “Do you think reporters worry about whether people cry after what they write about them?”
Frank, unlike many politicians, is respected by many reporters. As a LGBT scribe, he wins my heart for not ducking questions from the mainstream or gay press. “As an elected official, Barney Frank has always been accessible for interviews with the Blade and with me as a reporter for the Blade,” Chibbaro wrote. “In addition to being accessible … he also has a sense of humor and a frank ‘tell it like it is’ manner of letting you know what he thinks about the important issues.”
Thank you, Mr. Frank! Enjoy your post-congressional life. We can’t wait to see what you’ll do next.