With few regrets and a few more parting quips, Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank announced Monday that he will retire at the end of the current congressional term.
Congressman Frank, the longest-serving openly gay member of Congress and one of four openly gay congressional members currently in office, told reporters at a news conference in Newton, Mass. that his decision not to run for reelection in 2012 was driven in part by the realities of redistricting, as well as his desire to pursue writing and teaching. His announcement was met with an outpouring of gratitude by LGBT organizations who praised his gay rights legislative work as well as his influence on a new generation of LGBT political leaders.
Frank’s fourth congressional district now includes more conservative areas of Massachusetts as well as thousands of new constituents, which would require significant campaigning and fundraising that Frank is unwilling to do. The 71-year-old representative has previously said he would not remain in office past the age of 75, though Frank had announced in February that he would run for a final reelection bid next year.
In a Monday statement, President Barack Obama called Frank "a fierce advocate for the people of Massachusetts and Americans everywhere who needed a voice."
"He has worked tirelessly on behalf of families and businesses and helped make housing more affordable. He has stood up for the rights of LGBT Americans and fought to end discrimination against them," Obama said.
Frank told reporters Monday not to expect a quiet exit from the political arena, however. “I’m not retiring from advocacy of public policy. I think I will have more impact in some areas not [being] in office,” Frank said. In his post-public official role, “I think I will find my motives less impugned, and I’ll be able to talk about the merits" of issues important to him, he said.
The current ranking member on the House Financial Services Committee, Frank immediately shot down any notion that he would parlay his congressional tenure into a K Street position. “I will be neither a lobbyist nor a historian. There’s no way I would be a lobbyist,” he said. “I will miss this job and will have tinges of regret.... But one of the advantages of not running for office is that I don’t have to pretend to be nice to people I don’t like.”
Frank is the second LGBT congressional member not seeking reelection for a House seat next year. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who was first elected to represent Wisconsin’s 2nd congressional district in 1998, is now running to fill retiring Senator Herb Kohl’s seat. The other openly gay members of Congress are David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Jared Polis of Colorado.
"Barney's legacy will be huge, but he had shared recently with friends his frustrations with getting anything done now in Washington and that his last reelection seemed to take a heavy toll," said one source.
In a statement, Congressman Polis said, “Barney Frank was a groundbreaking pioneer and one of the most insightful, knowledgeable and humorous people ever to grace the halls of Congress. 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.”
The first openly gay member of Congress to come out voluntarily, Frank's office has also left its mark on LGBT firsts, with senior legislative assistant Diego Sanchez becoming the first openly transgender Hill staffer in 2009.
Frank created friction with transgender advocates in 2007 when he decided to support a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that included protections for sexual orientation but not gender identity, arguing that an inclusive ENDA was not politically viable. He said it would have been a “mistake” to push for gender identity protections at that time and urged passage of a sexual orientation-only version of the bill, with a second ENDA bill later to address gender identity. Frank now fully supports an inclusive ENDA, and the National Center for Transgender Equality praised him in a statement on Monday.
"While the relationship between Congressman Frank and transgender people has not always been smooth, the truth is that he has pushed very hard for trans rights in Congress and the administration over the last few years," said executive director Mara Keisling.
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"Social justice work is largely about winning people to our side," the statement continued. "As they become stronger allies, we have a moral and common sense obligation to embrace them and acknowledge their good work. The effort and influence he has exerted for trans people has mattered and has moved us down the field. It will be somewhat harder to advance our cause in Congress with the Congressman gone, but justice will be won for trans, gay and bi people and Congressman Frank will have been a very important part of that."
Frank, the longest-serving and highest-ranking openly gay member of Congress, came out after the late Gerry Studds of Massachusetts. Studds was forced to come out in 1983 when he was censured by the House for an affair 10 years earlier with a 17-year-old Congressional page. Studds went on to win reelection.
Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese, a Massachusetts native who worked on one of Frank's first congressional campaigns, issued a statement Monday morning.
“Barney Frank has exemplified true leadership over his more than 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives," he said, citing passage of "don't ask, don't tell" repeal and hate crimes legislation as key examples. "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, president and CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, said, “Barney Frank’s political career may be coming to an end, but his 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. 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 good news is that Congressman Frank has also inspired a new generation of LGBT leaders who are following in his footsteps and choosing to serve in public office openly, honestly, and unafraid to be themselves," continued Wolfe. "More than simply inspiring them, he has helped them run and win, and he has been an enormously supportive and generous friend to the Victory Fund."
Founder of the Stonewall Democrats, Rep. Frank "blazed a trail for the LGBT community in many ways — most especially for the openly gay Representatives who followed him into the halls of Congress," said Jerame Davis, the organization's new executive director.
Of Frank's impending retirement, Davis said, "He’d be well within his rights to say, 'I need to spend time with my partner and live my life now.' But I don’t see Barney Frank being the type of guy who does that. I see him staying involved in some way, though I’m not sure what that’s going to look like."
Among the legislative regrets Frank mentioned in response to a reporter’s question was his vote against a resolution authorizing the first Gulf War in 1991. He also said he would like to debate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the latest frontrunner in the Republican presidential nomination race, on the Defense of Marriage Act to determine who, exactly, is the primary threat to the sanctity of marriage.