Every ten years—when state legislatures redraw their congressional districts—there are bound to be political casualties. In Massachusetts, where the only thing more Democratic than the federal delegation is the state house, there have been no controversial partisan battles of the kind found this year in Maine or Texas over this redrawing. There are already noticeable if not momentous changes with this year’s map—namely, that it creates the first-ever majority-minority district in Massachusetts’s history (the same one in which Harvard happens to be located). Yet, for all the liberal sentiment that went into this year’s redistricting plan, it claimed as its first victim a hero to America’s progressives: Barney Frank ’61-’62. Frank announced his retirement last week, citing the drastic change in his district’s makeup and the likelihood of a harder-than-expected reelection battle.
We lament the loss of Frank as a legislator and a top-flight public figure. His distinguished career in Congress was a brilliant example of what an ambitious and passionate Harvard graduate can accomplish, and his career should serve as an inspiration for all politically minded young people.
Having spent 30 years in Congress, Frank accumulated an impressive list of legislative accomplishments, the most recent addition being the Dodd-Frank Act, which imposed new regulations on the financial sector. Locally, Frank was known for his unwavering commitment to his constituents, not least the fishermen of the port city of New Bedford. His advocacy for this downtrodden industry occasionally put him at odds with his fellow liberals over environmental concerns, but it was the loyalty he displayed to them that led many Massachusetts fishermen to refer to his retirement as “disastrous.” Frank became renowned for the personal touch he brought to politics, often stepping in to help constituents whose concerns had been lost in the cracks of bureaucracy. His active advocacy for his district gave meaning to the slogan that carried him through many a campaign: “Barney Frank, who else?” Many residents of Frank’s district will have a hard time imagining who might be able to fill the gigantic shoes he’s leaving behind.
Nationally, Frank was known for his incisive wit and steadfast allegiance to liberal causes. Although he is one of the nation’s most prominent Democrats, Frank has always been allied more closely to progressive principle than to party, breaking with fellow Democrats to support Republican Edward W. Brooke III for Senate in 1978. His unique character and remarkable sense of humor carried through to the present. Who can forget his infamous retort to Tea Party protestors at a 2009 town-hall meeting: “On what planet do you spend most of your time?”
Frank also notably holds the important distinction of being the first openly gay representative in the House. As many readers know and have witnessed, this particular characteristic has brought him undue disrespect from his colleagues over the years: In 1995, the second-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, Richard K. Armey, used an anti-gay slur in reference to Frank. His openness with his sexual orientation—albeit after years of staying in the closet—remains a breath of fresh air in an age when so many politicians hide their true sexual identities while spending years spouting homophobic vitriol.
Frank spent his career advocating for his constituents, championing liberal causes, and imbuing national discourse with a healthy dose of wry humor. His constituents will not be the only people to feel a void in his absence—the nation is losing a political figure worthy of true praise. Students here and everywhere should see Frank as an example of what you can accomplish when you are determined, principled, and true to yourself. He will be missed.