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Barney Frank Announces Retirement


After 30 years in Congress, Democrat Barney Frank is retiring. A leading liberal voice and one of the first openly gay congressmen, the 71-year-old from Massachusetts says he's leaving, in part, because his district has just been redrawn. He would likely face a grueling re-election campaign.

As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, Frank also says he feels like he's accomplished a lot, and wants to do other things.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Frank says he wanted to retire two years ago, but felt an obligation to stay in Congress and fight for financial reform and for cuts in military spending. Now that his district has been redrawn and some of the Democratic strongholds he's represented for decades have been replaced by more conservative towns, Frank says he'd be bogged down trying to sell himself to hundreds of thousands of new voters, and unable to focus on his work in Washington.

REPRESENTATIVE BARNEY FRANK: With the new district, I couldn't do that because I would have to spend all the time campaigning. So the new district took away the obligation I felt to run.

SMITH: Frank says he'd having an especially difficult time selling himself to voters knowing it was only for one more term, anyway. At 71, he says he has other things he wants to do - like writing, teaching, and speaking out on public policy, freed up from political constraints.

FRANK: One of the advantages, to me, of not running for office is I don't even have to pretend to try to be nice to people I don't like.


FRANK: Some of you may not think I've been good at it, but I've been trying.

SMITH: Frank is known for not suffering fools gladly, and for being what friends call a pit bull. Indeed, even at his press conference today, he snapped at a reporter for what he called her attempt at a "gotcha," and didn't hold back when confronted by a local Republican party activist.

TOM MOUNTAIN: ...which led to our financial meltdown.

FRANK: I was opposed to that.

MOUNTAIN: You were responsible for that, sir.

FRANK: No. I'm trying to have a rational conversation with you. I was clearly mistaken.

SMITH: In Congress, Frank has proven both piercing and pithy - zinging one-liners, for example, in his fight for stricter regulation and more consumer protections in the banking industry, as he did here on MSNBC in 2010, fighting for the legislation that became the Dodd-Frank Act.

FRANK: In the financial area, the problem was, the government wasn't there. The government - the cop went off the beat when they were doing all these abuses, when they were making mortgage loans that shouldn't have been made.

SMITH: Frank has also been a staunch advocate for gay rights ever since he became the first member of Congress to voluntarily come out as gay, in 1987. Frank Sainz is president of the Human Rights Campaign. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: NPR incorrectly referred to the Human Rights Campaign official. His name is Fred Sainz, and he is vice president of communications and marketing.]

FRED SAINZ: That is perhaps his legacy, in that he really did break through a lavender ceiling.

SMITH: Frank was equally bold and unabashed in his fight-back 25 years ago from a personal scandal involving a live-in boyfriend who was working as a prostitute. He not only survived but grew to become a leader of his party. President Obama today called him a fierce advocate for those who needed a voice, and said the House will not be the same without him.

New York congressman Steve Israel is head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

REPRESENTATIVE STEVE ISRAEL: Barney Frank has never shied away from anything in his entire life. He is a lion of the House Democratic Caucus, and there's no question that his voice will be missed.

SMITH: Israel says he expects Democrats to hold Frank's seat, but Republicans today were cheering the news, hoping it'll help them claim another seat long held by Democrats - like Scott Brown did when he won the Senate seat that used to be held by Ted Kennedy.

MOUNTAIN: It is an early Christmas present. We are ecstatic. His seat is very winnable. That was proven by Scott Brown, and we are going to win it.

SMITH: It will, no doubt, be a bruising campaign. Frank says today's brand of personal attacks and nasty politics are part of what makes him relieved to be retiring.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Newton, Massachusetts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
We incorrectly identified an official of the Human Rights Campaign as Frank Sainz, president. The official is actually Fred Sainz, vice president of communications and marketing.
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.