Facing a new electoral hurdle in a dramatically redrawn district, US Representative Barney Frank, a stalwart of Massachusetts politics for more than 40 years and one of the nation’s leading liberal voices, announced yesterday that he will leave Congress when his term expires.
Frank said the Massachusetts Legislature’s decision to carve up his congressional district and, in particular. to separate him from New Bedford, would have forced him to wage a reelection campaign in unfamiliar territory.
“I think I would have won but . . . it would have been a tough campaign,’’ said Frank, a Democrat first elected to Congress in 1980.
“I could not put the requisite effort into that,’’ Frank said, citing the demands of his current duties, the needs to raise funds and to introduce himself to new communities.
His decision to retire from public life is a milestone in Massachusetts and national politics. Frank, one of the first openly gay members of Congress, has for years been lionized by liberals across the country. Likewise, with his sharp tongue and rapier wit, Frank provoked antipathy from his most frequent targets, Republicans and social conservatives.
The announcement, delivered at a press conference in Newton’s City Hall, stunned the political world because Frank had told confidants, even in recent weeks, that he would fulfill a pledge he made in February to seek reelection, despite personal reservations.
But, according to close associates, the 71-year-old Newton Democrat decided on Thanksgiving Day that he did not have the energy or will to mount a difficult campaign in a redrawn district that would have contained 326,000 new constituents. He said it would be too much to tend to his current duties while campaigning in a new district.
“I can’t walk away from the fishing industry, and I can’t walk away from people I’ve grown close to and say, I’m sorry, I gotta go and worry about the Blackstone Valley and I don’t have time to do you,’’ Frank said, referring to his work with fishermen in New Bedford.
Frank, a New Jersey native who received bachelor’s and law degrees from Harvard, is one of the last politicians who earned his stripes as a top aide to Mayor Kevin White of Boston. He first entered elective office when he won a state legislative seat from the Back Bay in 1972, where he made a name for himself as a brash up-and-comer.
In Congress, Frank was able to weather an early scandal, involving a male prostitute who ran an escort service out of his home, to win reelection easily and become a leading voice on financial regulation and a standard-bearer for the Democratic Party.
“He was brilliant, funny, acerbic, strategic, and unashamedly liberal,’’ said Philip Johnston, a former state Democratic Party chairman who served in the Legislature with Frank. “And they’re in short supply these days.’’
Dan Payne, Frank’s longtime media consultant, called his retirement the end of an era. “Other than Ted Kennedy, Barney was the single most important liberal figure in Massachusetts for the past 40 years,’’ he said. “His name appears in more Republican fund-raising letters than any other Democrat in the country.’’
Conservatives said Frank’s power had already disappeared.
“The republic is slightly safer, but it doesn’t matter with the Republicans capturing the House as strongly as they did in 2010,’’ said Grover Norquist, an influential conservative voice in Washington.
Norquist, a Massachusetts native, said most of Frank’s critiques amount to impugning the motives of conservatives and others who disagree with him.
“He’s never met a legitimate opponent in his life,’’ Norquist said. “Everybody who’s ever disagreed with him is a bad person.’’
Frank’s announcement prompted statements from a range of political figures, including President Obama, Governor Deval Patrick, and US Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, as well as leading political gay and lesbian advocacy groups.
Frank’s lowest point in his public career came in the 1980s, when he hired Steve Gobie, a male prostitute, out of his personal funds to work as a housekeeper and driver. He kicked him out of his Washington home after he found Gobie was running an escort service there. The House Ethics Committee found no evidence of wrongdoing, but the full House reprimanded Frank for his office’s help in fixing 33 traffic tickets for Gobie and providing some misstatements.
Although he has increasingly earned a reputation in recent years for being cranky, short-tempered, and irascible, Frank was particularly relaxed and reflective as he met yesterday with reporters, many of whom he has upbraided over the years.
He gave lengthy and detailed answers defending his role in the financial crisis, said he regretted not supporting the initial 1991 Iraq invasion, and said he would leave it to others to define his legacy.
“One advantage to me of not running for office is, I don’t even have to pretend to be nice to people I don’t like,’’ Frank said.
“I do not plan to be responsible for anyone’s action except for my own and Jim’s,’’ he said, referring to his partner, James Ready.
Frank vowed that he would never become a lobbyist, but instead wants to spend his time writing and teaching. He said he will also stay active in public affairs.
“I am not retiring from advocacy of public policy,’’ he said.
Frank’s announcement injects a new layer of uncertainty into the state’s political landscape. Frank is the second of the state’s 10 House members, all Democrats, to announce his retirement, following Representative John Olver’s announcement last month.
The new district maps approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, which was forced to shrink the number of districts from 10 to nine because of sluggish population growth, have left an opening for strong Republican challenges in at least three districts.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin said it was surprising that the redistricting decisions by House and Senate leaders sealed Frank’s retirement, rather than his many opponents. As the state’s chief securities regulator, Galvin has worked closely with Frank over the years.
“Ironically, what the financial sector could not do, the Democratic Legislature did,’’ said Galvin, referring to Wall Street’s strong opposition to Frank.
Several potential candidates have emerged, including Sean Bielat, a Republican who gave Frank a strong challenge last year before falling 53 percent to 43 percent. Dr. Elizabeth Childs, a former Romney administration mental health commissioner, has declared in the Republican primary. Alan Khazei, cofounder of a national service program who withdrew recently from the Democratic US Senate primary, said yesterday that he would consider entering.
Frank, who chaired the financial services committee before Democrats lost power in the House last year, will be remembered for a long list of legislative victories, capped off by passage of a financial regulatory bill signed into law last year known as Dodd-Frank. He has also been a leader on gay rights issues, pushing for the end of the military’s ban on gays’ serving openly in the armed services.
“He wasn’t just able to move people on the merits of the issue; he was able to move people based on the great deal of respect and admiration that he had engendered over his 40 years in congress,’’ said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign.
Solmonese, who grew up in Frank’s district and went to work for his campaign in the early 1990s, said even friends could be subject to his verbal arrows.
“If you’re anybody who’s ever been a part of Barney’s inner circle, it becomes almost a badge of honor, and the stories become almost legendary,’’ he said. “His brain works faster than anybody else’s . . . He is legendary in his impatience when other people can’t move at the same pace.’’