NEWTON, Mass. Barney Frank has always been a little rough around the edges. When he was a legislator from Beacon Hill in the 1970s, a campaign poster showed a disheveled Frank sitting at his messy State House desk with the caption, “neatness isn’t everything.” His constituents at the time didn’t seem to mind. He was re-elected to the state Legislature three times before beginning his over 30-year career in Congress. Now that he’s retiring, you can expect any filters he may have to come off.
“One of the advantages to me of not running for office is, I don’t have to pretend to be nice to people I don’t like,” Frank said during a press conference Monday, where he announced his retirement. “Some of you might not think I’ve been good at it, but I’ve been trying.”
The New Jersey native came to Boston to attend Harvard University in the 1960s and went on to work as a top aide to then-Boston Mayor Kevin White.
Attorney Jim Segal has known Frank for more than 40 years, serving with him in the Legislature, and until January worked on his staff in Washington.
“He was a tough, tough kid and was able to deal with the toughness of the city of Boston at that time,” Segal said.
The tough kid from Bayonne, N.J., was able to learn enough about rough and tumble Boston politics to get elected to the Massachusetts Legislature. On Beacon Hill, he led the fight for the first minority Senate district in Boston, which resulted in the first African-American state senator. And as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Frank was able to restore some of the significant cuts made to the budget. But by 1980 Frank saw an opportunity to run for Congress when the Vatican told longtime liberal Rep. Father Robert Drinan he had to get out of politics.
Segal said he urged Frank to run.
“Even though he was from Beacon Hill, the issues resonated in a large part of the district. Father Drinan and he were not very far apart at all on issues. And Barney decided to make the run — it was a big leap for him,” Segal said.
It was a tight race, but Frank won the congressional seat, and he was able to hang on to it two years later, when redistricting forced him to run against popular Republican Rep. Margaret Heckler. Frank said one of his proudest moments came in 1987 when he publicly acknowledged he is gay.
“The best antidote to prejudice is reality, because prejudice is by definition based on ignorance of people’s real condition. And I am proud that by my finally coming out, I was 47, it didn’t happen in a clean sweep, but when I volunteered finally to come out in 1987, I do think it was helpful in that regard, and yes, I am proud of that,” Frank said.
But Frank’s personal life almost cost him his career. He was censured by his colleagues after it came to light he had hired a male prostitute as a personal aide. Frank weathered the scandal, telling his colleagues at the time he should have known better.
In the 1990s, when Republicans took control of the U.S. House, Frank served as a vocal member of the minority party. And when Democrats regained control, it was Frank — as chairman of the Committee on Financial Services — who drew up the legislation that bailed out major institutions. Then, in 2010, he crafted an overhaul of the nation’s financial industry.
Frank declined to answer a question about what will be his legacy.
“People should leave their legacies to other people to describe,” he said.
Other people describe Frank’s committee work on Capitol Hill and his influence behind the scenes as central to his legacy.
Frank said he will continue to be an active member of Congress for the remainder of his term. When he retires, in about 13 months, Frank plans to write, teach and lecture, and continue to be an advocate for public policy.