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.
Of course it would be a good thing to try to get the Republican Party [to be more inclusive], but first of all it’s how they do it. They say, ’’We are trying to get the Republicans to be better and we will support them whether they are or not.’’
How in the world can you argue that supporting Mitt Romney is good for LGBT rights? Telling Mitt Romney that you will support him is one thing, but you don’t train a dog by rewarding him when he shits on the rug. That’s what they’re doing. And then they mislead people.
So, again, of course I would like them to try, but the record is abysmal. By the way, the Republicans got worse, not better, since the Log Cabin Republicans. That’s not because of them, but it shows the futility of what they’ve done. We’ve had four states that have had referenda on same-sex marriage. There were 34 members of Congress from those four states - 12 Republicans, 22 Democrats. Of the 22 Democrats, 21 were in favor of same-sex marriage and one was opposed. Of the 12 Republicans - now remember this includes more liberal states, including Minnesota, Washington, Maryland and Maine - do you know how many Republicans members of Congress in those four states were supportive? Zero. The best they could get were two who were neutral - the two champions, [Olympia] Snowe and [Susan] Collins. Ten were against. So the Republicans were zero, 10 and two. Democrats 21 and one.
Now, I can understand people saying, ’’You know what, I’m conservative. I don’t want higher taxes, I don’t really believe in global warming, I think we need to spend more on the military, and that’s more important to me than LGBT rights.’’ There is no rational basis for arguing that voting for those guys is better for LGBT rights. Now, again, of course they should try, but they fail and then they claim to be successful and they mislead people.
MW: You’ve been a pretty big supporter of President Obama, but you’ve also had your criticisms. You issued a statement criticizing Chuck Hagel as defense secretary. What’s your judgment of Obama’s first term on LGBT rights?
FRANK: Very, very good. The country is moving and he’s helping move the country. One of the things he hasn’t gotten enough credit for, because it’s a fairly sophisticated point, is not just opposing DOMA, but now taking the position that in the federal government any discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity has to have a very high level of support for the level of scrutiny - very critical and very important. On ’’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’’ I was a little worried and, frankly, I spent a lot of time in the fall of 2010 saying to him we have to deal with this. But he was very good on it.
MW: What do you make of some of the criticism the White House is facing for its delay on this executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
FRANK: It’s unfair to assume it’s anti-LGBT. The problem there is not LGBT, but it’s the argument that there is an executive overreach. That’s a pretty far-reaching policy decision to be made by the executive alone, and the Republicans have ... scored some points by arguing he has done too much executive power without congressional approval. So I think it is unfair to impugn their reluctance to sign that. It’s a reluctance to do too many things by executive order and feed into their argument that there’s an executive overreach.
MW: The argument that advocates make is that by signing that executive order it would put a spotlight on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which you were a champion of in the House.
FRANK: That argument is dumb. D-U-M-B, dumb. Put a spotlight on it with whom? Let me ask you, is there somebody who doesn’t know ENDA hasn’t passed?
MW: There is polling that shows people think these protections are already in place.
FRANK: Right. And the president doing that order isn’t going to change that. Please be careful of metaphors. Yes, when you shine a spotlight on something, people see it. But a political action does not necessarily mean other people see things more.
Secondly, the problem is partisan. I guarantee you the Republican members of Congress who vote against it know that. It’s not that people don’t know there’s discrimination, it’s that the Republicans think it’s a good thing.
MW: When do you think ENDA might pass?
FRANK: We’re the tail on the dog there. Maybe 2016. The problem is the Republicans control the House and as long as the Republicans control the House nothing will pass. Now Log Cabin says they’re going to change that. I’ll believe that when I see it.
MW: When Congress ended this session it had some of the lowest approval ratings ever. What do you think of the new Congress that was sworn in today?
FRANK: Well, it’s marginally better. The reason for that low rating was the tea party and the tea party’s control over the Republicans. It was encouraging that Speaker Boehner is now taking them on, although 60-plus percent voted the other way. In the near term it’s going to be messy. The most important political dynamic of the next couple years will be this fight over whether the tea party totally dominates the Republican Party. In short term that could make Congress look worse, but if, as I believe will happen, the mainstream conservatives will increasingly fight off the tea party, then things will get better.
MW: With the out members that were sworn in today, what’s your take on them?
FRANK: Oh, they’re great. They’re bright. We’re breaking through in terms of numbers and they’re from all over the country - Arizona, Wisconsin, Colorado, Rhode Island, California - it’s coastal. I’m very pleased. And of course Tammy in the Senate. A, they are very good and, B, it’s a reinforcement process. There’s less prejudice. And when there’s less prejudice, people can do things; and because people can do things, there’s less prejudice.
MW: You’re leaving Congress now as a married man. Is that something you ever thought would be possible?
FRANK: No, not remotely. I never thought I would get elected to anything. I got elected in 1972 to the Legislature in a very atypical, very upscale urban district in Boston. I never thought I could go beyond that. I got here and never thought I’d come out, but came out and it had no negative effect. I then thought I would never get a leadership position, but won by seniority to this really important chairmanship and there was not a whisper.
When I first got here and came out I would get asked to go campaign for my colleagues, but ... it was almost certainly going to be within 15 miles of an ocean, because coastal politics is liberal politics. Now I go to Ohio and Missouri and Texas.
Since I filed a gay rights bill in 1972, if at any time you’d asked me, ’’Well, what’s gay rights going to look like three years from now?’’ I would’ve been too pessimistic. When Obama came out for marriage in May I said it wasn’t going to hurt him. I didn’t realize it would be interpreted as helping him so much.
It never would’ve occurred to me that I would be married and a member of Congress. I did make a point of being married while I was still here because I wanted these people to, you know, I’m very pleased to run into some conservative Republicans and introduce them to my husband. And Jim is a very popular guy with the other spouses and we’re the only same-sex couple other members of Congress really know. I think that’s very important.
To make it kind of a teaching moment, one Republican member of Congress, a more moderate conservative, sent us a wedding present and then voted to reaffirm the Defense of Marriage Act. So I brought the present back and the response was, ’’Well, why?’’ And I said, ’’Are you kidding?’’
MW: Do you think your marriage has changed any minds or made some people rethink their positions on same-sex marriage?
FRANK: Not in and of itself. I think it’s a reinforcement of good trends. What’s turned this around in the country more than anything else is coming out. With my colleagues it’s now not some abstract gay couple, it’s me and Jim, who they like, who are friendly and have seen the positive impact. People have said to me, ’’Gee, you seem happier now.’’ Putting two faces on it is very important.
MW: You mentioned your career started with the broader gay-rights movement. Do you think there has been too much focus on this fight for same-sex marriage? Is that obscuring some of the other issues of the LGBT-rights movement?
FRANK: Not for this reason: Winning on the same-sex marriage issue was always a judicial and state-by-state issue. The competition at the federal level in 2009 and 2010 was between ENDA and ’’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’’ It was hard to get them both done and Speaker Pelosi got the impression from the LGBT community that they thought ’’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’ was more important than ENDA. And that’s why we moved on that. I don’t see marriage has in any way distracted us from other issues.
MW: Do you have any regrets looking over your long career here?
FRANK: Strangely, I would’ve voted, if I had known how it was going to turn out, for the first Iraq war. I thought President Bush Senior did a much better job than I expected. I was afraid he would do what his son did.
I obviously regret personally the involvement with a hustler, which came about when I was dealing very stupidly with the pressures of being closeted. On public-policy issues, no, other than the war.
MW: What do you think is the defining part of your legacy.
FRANK: Oh, that’s a hard one.
MW: That’s why I saved it for last.
FRANK: You can’t answer that because you look arrogant. Either you look arrogant or you try to sound humble and no one believes you.
MW: Well, what are you most proud of?
FRANK: That’s the same question. I’m very proud of when a reporter asks me a question I don’t want to answer and then tries to get me to answer it by changing it a bit I still don’t answer it.
I will say I am proud of being the first member of Congress to come out voluntarily. It troubled me some because two and half years after I voluntarily came out I had this hustler making these accusations against me, one of which was true, most of which were false. And in some people’s minds I was outed by him. But that’s just not true. So I am proud of coming out voluntarily. I think that’s important.