Joan Vennochi

Bielat’s challenge pushed Frank toward exit

WHO’S REALLY behind Barney Frank’s decision to call it quits after three decades in Washington? Fellow Democrat Ed Markey or former Republican challenger Sean Bielat?

Frank is publicly blaming Markey, the so-called dean of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, for failing to stop Beacon Hill Democrats from carving up Frank’s congressional district. But the unexpectedly tough fight Frank faced from Bielat in 2010 probably had more to do with his decision than he wants to admit.

He beat Bielat by 11 percentage points, which qualifies as a close race for Frank. It was also a brutish one. Frank had to do what he hadn’t done in a long time - hit the campaign trail and work hard to remind voters why they needed him in Washington. The race got national attention, as Republicans attacked Frank for what they portrayed as his role in the collapse of the home mortgage industry.


Frank prevailed against Bielat, but the race took its toll. Afterwards, fellow Democrats believed he was putting out word that he would not seek reelection. That was a relief to the rest of the delegation, as well as to Beacon Hill legislators who were charged with drawing up new congressional districts that reflected a shift in national population. It would be easier to eliminate a seat and redraw districts if Frank voluntarily took himself out of the equation.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Then, last February, Frank announced plans to seek another term. His fellow Democrats were shocked. Some in the delegation were also angry. Keeping Frank’s district intact for one more term jeopardized their ability to win reelection.

Protecting incumbents should not be the goal of redistricting. But this is Massachusetts, where Democrats rule and the most powerful Democrats always work to protect their incumbent friends. Part of Frank’s problem is that he doesn’t have as many friends on Beacon Hill as others do.

Senate President Therese Murray wanted to protect Niki Tsongas, the only woman in the congressional delegation. House Speaker Robert DeLeo is especially loyal to Markey. Beacon Hill Democrats were also looking to the future. If their party somehow regains control of the US House of Representatives, Richard Neal would be chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee; Jim McGovern would be chairman of the prestigious Rules Committee. Two other incumbent congressmen, John Tierney and Bill Keating, also lobbied hard to retain constituencies likely to reelect them.

Then there’s Frank. He’s a national political figure and liberal icon, with clout as past chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. But he’s 71, and as his 2010 campaign manager, Kevin Sowyrda, puts it, Frank is not “Mr. Back-slapping Kissy-poo’’ at the State House. Frank “has a very interesting habit of calling a horse’s rear end a horse’s rear end,’’ Sowyrda says. “I don’t think members of the Legislature were losing sleep at night about Barney losing New Bedford.’’


Frank did lose New Bedford. He also gained what he considered the less hospitable Blackstone Valley, along with 326,000 new constituents Frank did not feel like meeting and wooing. Even so, the district is winnable. If Frank is that unenthusiastic about campaigning, it really is time for him to retire.

“In the end, two consecutive tough elections was not what anyone was hoping for; but one in such a vastly changed district was not appealing,’’ said Sowyrda.

Frank is now complaining that Markey wasn’t a strong enough advocate for him on Beacon Hill. “I think Ed had some influence with them,’’ he told the Globe, “but it was spent mostly on his own district.’’

Imagine Frank being surprised at the notion of a politician thinking only of himself. After 41 years in politics, he also forgot that relationships matter. People remember how they are treated - and that includes Beacon Hill lawmakers.

Some Massachusetts Democrats believe Frank was never going to run for reelection and is now using redistricting as a cover for his decision. He was not having fun as a member of the minority party in Washington. Besides, his last reelection campaign clearly wore him down because it showed the world is changing, even in Massachusetts.


It was Bielat who delivered that message. It’s not Markey’s fault.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.