Barney Frank: Winning by the Rules

In the 1973 session of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, State Rep. Barney Frank '62 sponsored a bill to legalize prostitution. During the ensuing floor debate, an indignant representative said, "My colleague introduced a bill to legalize gambling, then he introduced a bill to legalize pornography and another to do the same for homosexuality. Now he wants us to legalize prostitution. I want to know, Mr. Speaker, when will he stop."

Rising to speak, Frank replied, "Mr. Speaker, it's true, I have introduced bills to legalize pornography, homosexuality and now prostitution but I promise my colleague that when I find something he likes, I'll stop." Despite the burst of laughter from the floor of the House, the bill failed.

To describe Barney Frank as merely witty, intellectual or liberal would be to ignore the complexities that have made him one of the most respected and competent politicians in the state house. Frank, who represents Boston's Back Bay area, has puzzled many observers: a Jew from Bayonne, N.J., who has risen to prominence in one of the most Irish-Catholic cities in the nation. He has lived in the Boston area since he came to the College in 1957 and spent five years at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences working on a doctorate in Government before he moved from academics to politics.

In 1967 Kevin H. White, then Massachusetts's Secretary of State, ran for mayor of Boston against Louise Day Hicks. It was a classic race of the '60s, with White as the John Lindsay-type liberal and Hicks as the ogre who proclaimed about the race issue, "You know where I stand." Samuel P. Huntington, Thompson Professor of Government and White's Beacon Hill neighbor, recruited Frank for White's campaign. White won and Frank stayed on at City Hall as his administrative assistant, a position reserved for whiz-kids. After three years, he says, he was "just worn-out" and Frank came back to Harvard to try to finish his doctoral dissertation. He soon came to the realization that he was better suited to politics than scholarship and left for a position on the staff of Rep. Michael Harrington (D-Mass.). In May 1972, Frank decided to run for office and was elected to his current position the following November. But he has not abandoned the academic community completely--while serving in the House, Frank has attended Harvard Law School, and expects to be graduated this June.

Throughout his ten-year career, Frank has used his wit, intellect and flair for the outrageous to distinguish himself. He had what is probably the most favorable press coverage of any politician in the state. Reporters find him extremely accessible and considerate--unlike most Boston politicians, he returns reporters' calls promptly and always provides clever quips. When the House created an Ethics Committee last month in the wake of the conviction of two state senators for extortion, Frank said, "Peer policing doesn't even work at West Point. The Committee should be banned with saccharin as an artificial sweetener."

Frank is a leading advocate of some of the most progressive legislation that has faced the House on issues like mass transit, human services, and civil liberties. As a member of the House's most powerful committee, Ways and Means, he enjoys the respect of Speaker Thomas W. McGee, who controls all committee appointments. But success did not court Frank because of his ability or ideals; however great they may be, it is the result of his careful exploitation of his contacts and positions.

The unique composition of the Back Bay population serves Frank's interest. With high percentages of gay, elderly and student voters, Frank can pursue his generally unpopular stances with little fear of losing votes. A South Boston representative could not vote for a gay rights bill without seriously jeopardizing his career; Frank, on the other hand, is encouraged to stand by his unusual candor and beliefs. The other representative from the Back Bay, Elaine Noble, campaigned as an acknowledged lesbian. The Back Bay also has a great deal of housing and traffic problems Normally, they would be referred to a councilor, but because the conservative Boston City Council is elected at-large instead of by districts, councilors can ignore requests from neighborhoods where they expect little support. So the representative's share of constituent services increases. Frank has a keen knowledge of city operations because of his work in the White administration and is able to deal efficiently with the problems his constituents bring to him. Vice-Mayor Edward T. Sullivan said last week, "We probably try to respond to Barney's legitimate request for services faster than most."

Because of numerous charges of corruption and political heavy-handedness, and the pressures of the busing crisis. White's liberal image has been severely tarnished in recent years, straining but not breaking his friendship with Frank. Frank notes, "White is clearly to the left of the city on racial matters," and the mayor attracted an outstanding liberal staff during his first two terms which included Hale Champion as the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority and Fred Salvucci, Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, as the director of the East Boston Little City Hall.

Now in his third term, White is trying to politicize the city's government in order to build a machine. During the height of the busing troubles, the mayor avoided aggravating tensions--unlike many city politicians--but he also took as few chances as possible in trying to allay the city's fears. White would seem to be an excellent target for Frank's brutally candid quips, but the representative has remained sympathetic to his former benefactor. Frank voted against White's charter reform package, an issue crucial to the mayor (and if you believed White, to the city too), but they still maintain their mutually beneficial relationship.

Another of Frank's mutually beneficial accommodations is his relationship with McGee. Critics of the speaker claim his rule is about as democratic as that of Indira Gandhi (although he will never be threatened by democratic elections), but Frank disagrees. It is "not dictatorship from above, it's regimentation wanted from below. Most members do not have strong views on public policy". he says. McGee is generally open-minded about social issues, although he is a conservative with close ties to the airlines, liquor and racing interests and power companies, and Frank seems to be aware of the benefits in staying on the speaker's good side.

Dolores L. Mitchell, Governor Michael S. Dukakis's cabinet co-ordinator, said last week, "There is no question that on most procedural votes, Barney can be considered as a safe leadership vote. He would be the first to admit that if you want to be effective you have to back the leadership on partisan votes except on those matters where he has clearly staked out a position." When liberals unsuccessfully tried to make membership on the House Rules Committee subject to caucus vote instead of under McGee's discretion, Frank voted with the leadership. He indirectly supported Mitchell's statement when he said, "I sometimes wonder why I'm so submissive."

One close political ally with whom Frank did break is Dukakis himself, who offered to make him secretary of transportation in 1974. Frank claims that the far-reaching social programs started under Francis W. Sargent, Dukakis's predecessor, were approved with the understanding that taxes would be raised in 1975 to pay fog them. Campaigning with the slogan of "No new taxes," Dukakis delayed a tax increase for 11 months in 1975, despite a $700 million deficit. The governor slashed human services to balance the budget, and has run a pro-business, austerity-minded administration. Frank notes, "Unlike White, Dukakis went to the right early and pulled the state with him." A staunch Dukakis supporter in the 1974 election, Frank explains, "He made promises that were inconsistent and I fooled myself."

Frank "feels very strongly about human services and that overshadows other issues," Hank O'Donnell, the head of Dukakis's legislative relations office, says. Frank's criticism of Dukakis on social issues tends to obscure his pro-administration votes in other areas. Both Dukakis and Frank supported the move to change the commissioners at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination from a part- to a full-time basis, and Frank cast a crucial vote last year to sustain the administration's veto of the hospitals' certificate of needs bill. He enthusiastically supports the Cox Plan, Dukakis's court reform package, but claims the governor is doing little else to reform state administration.

Dukakis's relationship with the legislative leadership has gone from the mutually undisguised contempt of 1975 to the present civilized, working compatibility. Most liberals in the legislature are still wary of Dukakis on certain issues. Frank's understandings with White and McGee have made it unnecessary for him to rely on Dukakis's administration for favors; as a result, Dukakis aides respect Frank far more than he respects Dukakis, and the administration needs him more than he needs them.

It seems that all the criticism Frank has refrained from aiming at White and McGee has been re-directed at Dukakis. He even charges that Dukakis's impeccable honesty, a trait all critics concede him, is reduced to the governor's being "a perfect ingrate." John R. Buckley '54, Massachusetts's Secretary of Administration and Finance, says he believes this is a result of Frank's disappointment in the governor and a general frustration with the state's inability to expand human services. Frank describes his current relationship with Dukakis as civil, but feels it may improve "if he doesn't get re-elected."

State House observers agree that Frank has a promising political future but his re-election prospects in 1978 are cloudy. Because the House membership has been reduced from 240 to 160, part of Noble's district has been combined with Frank's and the two friends will be pitted against each other in the next election. Noble is adamant about seeking re-election, and though Frank thinks he would win a race against her, he feels it would be an expensive waste of liberal money and efforts. And because Majority Leader Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. represents the Back Bay in Congress, it is unlikely Frank will attain his goal of becoming a congressman in the near future. He says he finds the city council an unattractive zoo, so he may temporarily leave politics in 1978 to practice law or teach. For now, however, everything is in a state of flux.

Most politicians "don't want to get into a pissing contest" and shy away from criticizing Frank on the record. When asked if City Hall had a negative reaction to Frank's opposition to the charter package, George K. Reagen, White's press secretary, said "We really had none." Most city Hall observers thought the White administration was livid. Alvin Levin, a member of the liberal activist group, Citizens for Participation in Political Action, which opposed Frank on several major issues including last year's regional primary bill, says, "I have a terrible memory" when asked to cite issues over which they have differed.

Buckley says he thinks that the time he spent at the Law School has reduced Frank's effectiveness as a representative. "It's not what you do when the House is in session, it's what you do after the session and committee hearings," he says. But Levin, O'Donnell, Buckley and Mitchell quickly balance any negative observations with favorable comments.

State House politicans from both branches and all ideological perspectives refused to criticize Frank for his relations with the legislative leadership. Levin agrees that Frank supports the leadership on many issues including party discipline but refused to criticize him for it because "I'm on the outside," not having to face the pressures Frank does.

More than anything else, Frank's career suggests the possibilities of getting along in state politics without compromising. A generalist, he maximizes his effectiveness over a wide range of issues by taking the most pragmatic line. Frank explains himself best: he will take "anything better that doesn't make things worse." This strategy may lack the glamor of idealism, but its effectiveness is proven.

Two issues of top concern to him are Dukakis's work-fare plan and reform of the state's civil service. Dukakis wants to require able-bodied adults on welfare to work for the state in return for their welfare check. A complicated issue fraught with unforeseen expenses and effects, Frank approves of it philosophically but feels the specific proposal is too harsh on parents with younger children and will result in few tangible benefits. The combination of rigid civil service regulations and collective bargaining for public employees has made it impossible to discipline and fire state employees, Frank says, leaving the bureaucracy with significant problems. Because of Dukakis's faith in the civil service system, Frank says he sees little possibility for reform at the state level.

With well-planned steps, Frank has traveled a significant amount of political ground in a short span of time. With his ability, the only limits his career seems likely to encounter are the limits to his ambition. Frank has done what the best and the brightest failed to do in the '60s: move from Harvard academics to nitty-gritty government, keeping personal and intellectual integrity intact. A State House veteran who works on McGee's staff said of Frank, "Barney understands the rules of the game and the rules of procedure. Barney will not lead the charge of the Light Brigade. There are some Kamikaze liberals who will. Barney is a good practical pol."