US Representative Barney Frank, the state’s highest-profile congressman and one of the nation’s leading liberal voices after being among its first openly gay elected officials, announced today that he will not seek reelection next year.
The Newton Democrat faced the prospect of a bruising reelection campaign next year after surviving a brutal battle in 2010. He also would have run in an altered district that retained his Newton stronghold but encompassed more conservative towns like Walpole.
In addition, Frank lost New Bedford, a blue-collar city where he had invested a lot of time and become a leading figure in the region’s fisheries debate.
“I don’t have to pretend to be nice to people I don’t like,” the famously irascible Frank told reporters and supporters during an early afternoon news conference at Newton City Hall.
Turning serious, he said: “It would have been a rough campaign,” adding, “I don’t like raising money.”
As for his future plans, he answered with a barely veiled shot at Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.
“I will neither be a lobbyist nor a historian,” said Frank, noting two jobs that have enriched Gingrich since he stepped down as House speaker. Frank said he intends to pursue “some combination of writing, teaching, and lecturing.”
He also offered an interesting regret: “I voted against President Bush, the first, request to go into Iraq,” he said of the congressional vote that preceded the 1991 Persian Gulf War after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.
“If we were back again, I would have voted for that,” said Frank.
The current president, fellow Democrat Barack Obama, said, “This country has never had a congressman like Barney Frank, and the House of Representatives will not be the same without him.”
Obama credited Frank with helping to pass the Dodd-Frank Act, “the most sweeping financial reform in history designed to protect consumers and prevent the kind of excessive risk-taking that led to the financial crisis from ever happening again.”
Frank’s campaign manager last year said his withering 2010 re-election effort spurred the congressman to think seriously about retirement, even saying a few days after the election that it would be his last one.
Frank wanted to announce that this would be his final term immediately afterward, but decided against it, said Kevin Sowyrda, the campaign manager.
“We looked him right in the face and said, ‘You can’t resign,” Sowyrda said. “In fairness to Barney, he was emotional about it. He said, ‘I know I’ve got to stay.’”
“I believe that Barney felt an obligation to come through for the (supporters) people that came through for him,” said Sowyrda.
But retirement has been on his mind ever since.
“After that election, he began the process of contemplating a different future with different challenges,” Sowyrda said.
John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said in a statement: “In a state that has sent many great leaders to Washington, Barney Frank will take his place in history as a shining son of Massachusetts.”
Former party head Philip W. Johnston told the Globe: “He was brilliant, funny, acerbic, strategic, and unashamedly liberal. And they’re in short supply these days.”
The Massachusetts Republican Party reveled in the announcement.
“It is clear that Congressman Frank was not looking forward to another hard-fought campaign after losing his gerrymandered district and spending nearly every penny he had in 2010. Republicans were already gearing up for a strong race, and Frank’s sudden retirement injects added optimism and excitement into the election,” said party Executive Director Nate Little.
Frank, 71, was raised in Bayonne, N.J., but schooled at Harvard University and Harvard Law School, endowing him with a street-fighter’s mouth and an academic’s wit.
He was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1972 and the US House eight years later.
He ultimately became a cable TV favorite with his pithy, fearless comments. Once remarking about the nearly $15 billion Big Dig cost, Frank said: “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to raise the city than to depress the Artery?”
In 1987, he became the first member of the chamber to voluntarily acknowledge he was gay. Another Massachusetts congressman, US Representative Gerry Studds, had been forced to acknowledge his homosexuality in 1983 after disclosure of a sexual relationship with a House page.
In 1989, Frank was involved in a scandal after the revelation that a live-in boyfriend had formerly operated a gay prostitute service from his home. The House ended up reprimanding Frank for fixing parking tickets on behalf of the prostitute.
More recently, he has been one of President Obama’s most important allies but also a target of Republicans. They accuse him of helping create the country’s housing collapse by pushing the government and banks into approving loans to unqualified buyers.
Frank faced a stern reelection challenge last year from Republican Sean Bielat, prevailing 53 percent to 43 percent but only after a blistering campaign.
He also shifted from chairman of the House Financial Services Committee to its top-ranking minority member when Republican regained control of the House of Representatives in last year’s midterm elections.
Frank, who co-authored the law overhauling financial regulation and spearheaded its passage as chair of the Financial Services Committee last year, acknowledged himself in February that he had contemplated retirement after last year’s race.
But he said after GOP lawmakers took over the House and began targeting the financial overhaul he authored, he decided he needed to try to keep his job.
“Some very important programs are at risk,’’ he said then.
The announcement comes a week after Governor Deval Patrick signed a law creating the new state congressional districts. Another Democrat in the delegation, US Representative John Olver, announced in October that he would not seek reelection next year amid the specter of being forced into a showdown with US Representative Richard E. Neal of Springfield.
Frank has depended on his hometown of Newton, as well as Brookline and the Democratic strongholds of Fall River and New Bedford to keep his seat the last three decades. But he lost New Bedford and picked up additional conservative voting towns west and south of Boston and in Bristol and Norfolk counties.
Bielat is weighing a second campaign, and a bevy of Democrats are expended to seek the suddenly open seat. Brookline School Committee member Elizabeth Childs has already announced her candidacy for the GOP nomination.
A longtime supporter and friend, Provincetown resident Ann Maguire, who is openly gay, said she was first inspired to support Frank in the early 1970s when he publicly announced his support for gay rights, even though he had not come out yet.
“He was running to be state rep, and he was going to be supporting gay rights, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ Here he was taking that first step. ‘Here is someone who has the courage and strength who is willing to go out and fight for something he believes in.’”
She said his retirement is an “incredible loss.
“I think he is one of the brightest, if not the brightest, representatives we have,” she said.
Maguire touted his intellectual prowess, noting that he went to law school at the same time he was a state representative.
“Over the years, people - other reps in Massachusetts - who were not even on his side on stuff would call him to ask him what bills were all about,” said Maguire, who has hosted fundraisers for Frank and hosted the congressman and his partner during vacations on the Cape. “They trusted him, and he would be very honest with them and they always could respect that.”
Frank also has inspired many openly gay people to run for office, including New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the first openly gay council president in the city.
“He really showed that this was something that was possible, that you could make a difference and be yourself,” said Quinn, who first was elected to the council in 1999. “I think Barney Frank really changed the world for a lot of people, but he certainly changed the world for LGBT individuals. ...He’s really a hero to all of us.”