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U.S. Rep. Barney Frank '61 (D-Newton) is accustomed to making waves.
Ever since he became the first member of Congress to publicly announce he was gay, Frank has been a center of controversy on Capitol Hill. And since the revelation last fall that he paid a Washington, D.C. prostitute for sex, Frank has been the subject of an ongoing inquiry by the House Ethics Committee.
One would hardly expect that a challenger to Frank would be capable of causing more controversy than the Democratic incumbent himself. Nonetheless, Republican hopeful John Soto has been doing just that.
Soto has spent much of his campaign activity attacking Frank for what he says is a lack of moral integrity, exemplified by Frank's relationship with prostitute Steven Gobie. Soto has even gone so far as to suggest Frank submit to an AIDS test and inform the public of its results, according to The Boston Herald.
For many Bay State Republicans, this type of attack is a little too much. Even the staunchly conservative Herald printed an unsigned editorial on February 17 attacking Soto, calling the demand for a public test "mean-spirited."
"John Soto should have his brain tested," the editorial read, arguing that the candidate "is obviously not playing with a full deck."
But when Republican allies have criticized his approach, Soto has lashed back claiming that the real reason party members are discouraging him from running is his Puerto Rican background.
"I feel that there's a body over there in the state committee that feels I am not viable because of my ethnic background," Soto says.
The Herald's editorial, he says, was based on a single interview which seriously distorted his comments.
"I wanted to meet with The Boston Herald reporter to talk about the major differences between Barney Frank and John Soto, which are important to the voter," Soto says. "I'm for fiscal restraint and no new taxes. He supports new taxes. I support the death penalty. He opposes it. He's pro-abortion.
"But The Boston Herald doesn't want to write about these things, because they don't sell newspapers. They want controversy, and after they create it, they blame me for it," Soto says.
He says he is not attempting to make an AIDS test a major campaign issue, but is instead trying to focus public attention on what he perceives as a lack of judgment on Frank's part.
But although Soto has more or less stopped talking about the matter of the test since the Herald editorial, he says he stands by his contention that if Frank has taken an AIDS test, he should inform the public of its results.
His reasoning is that if Frank had AIDS, he "could develop dementia, which could affect his mental faculties, and it could affect his voting on issues," Soto says.
Frank, on the other hand, argues that Soto is the one suffering from impaired judgement.
"Having been accused by John Soto of dementia is like being accused by Rosanne Barr of being fat," Frank says. "It's extraordinarily stupid."
Frank maintains that making people publicly reveal the results of AIDS tests would violate their right to privacy.
"It's incredibly subversive of a public health policy to make people disclose their HIV status, and I won't be a part of that," he says.
And Republican James L.J. Nuzzo, who is also challenging Frank, says that he does not consider the incumbent's health to be a matter of concern.
"Look, I'm a physician, and one of the things I understand is the importance of confidentiality," Nuzzo says, "Whether Barney Frank wants to reveal the results of an AIDS test is his business, and his business alone. It should not become a political matter of public debate, and I condemn any attempt to do so."
While Soto says the voters of the Fourth Congressional District--which stretches from the wealthy suburban community of Newton to the ethnically diverse, working class Fall River--deserve to know whether Frank has contracted the AIDS virus, some fellow Republicans think Soto has gone too far.
The charge that the party is discriminating against Soto because of his background, many Republicans say, is absurd. "It's a figment of his imagination," says Rep. Kevin Poirier, (R-N. Attleboro), a Nuzzo supporter, He's putting both feet in his mouth, and he's the one causing his own problems. It's not remotely involved with his ethnic background."
Poirier says the real reason Republicans have been reluctant to support Soto is that the challenger is "very narrow in his scope."
"He doesn't offer a platform that will be strong enough to beat Barney Frank," Poirier says, adding, "I think he's a desperate candidate."
But other state Republicans who know Soto are more charitable in their assessments of the Congressional hopeful, saying that the controversy surrounding Soto's candidacy is simply the result of his inexperience.
"John is a decent fellow who is very, very intense and his intensity leads him to do things not too well considered, and politically, they are not the wisest thing to do," says State Rep. John C. Bradford (R-Rochester) "Some of this comes from inexperience. He has to find a way to lessen the intensity. He's ready to explode."
But whatever the source of the controversy, Bradford maintains that Soto needs to change his style if he is to have any hope of besting Nuzzo or Frank.
"He's got to take into account people who may be hurt. When he does something like this, it hurts the Republicans' perception of him. If he continues along this vein, his chances will be very poor," Bradford says. "He should loosen up a little bit and put these things into perspective."
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