Literature

Reaching Out

arts-lead-barney-frankLGBT hero Barney Frank comes to Santa Cruz to discuss his four decades of revolution through consensus

We may have misplaced the hallowed path of give-and-take that once made the U.S. Congress one of the most dynamic political bodies on earth, but if we’re interested in retracing our steps, we need only look to one of its most fascinating members: Barney Frank. He’ll be appearing in Santa Cruz on Monday, April 20, for his new autobiography, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same Sex Marriage, and though the title reflects the kind of double-entendre he loves, I can think of no better way to describe his feisty, funny, suffer-no-fools approach to politics and life.

Throughout the course of his 40-year career, Barney Frank has shown Americans what a politician should be made of: an open mind, a solid work ethic, an aversion to hypocrisy, a passion for civil rights, and a healthy mistrust of big money. He’s also shown us, with signature wit and rumpled style, how a gay, Jewish, liberal-progressive Jersey boy in a baggy suit came to be one of the most powerful and effective members of Congress.

He would be the first to tell you it wasn’t easy.  In fact, his signature blunt approach–in his first campaign, when someone wrote he was wearing an ill-fitting suit, he shot back that it was actually a well-fitting suit, he just wasn’t the person it fit—was tempered by tactical restraint, both personally and politically. That nuanced strategy reflected not only his professional fears, but also his conviction that lasting change comes through the messy, incremental process of democracy.  “Incrementalism is not the enemy of militancy,” he writes, “it is often the only effective means of expressing it.” Needless to say, he’d probably have a few barbed words for the UCSC students who blocked Highway 17 in their protest against tuition hikes, regardless of sympathy to their cause.

Frank realized his passions early on.  He writes of himself at 14, “I realized that there were two ways in which I was different from the other guys: I was attracted to the idea of serving in government and I was attracted to the other guys.”  He kept his sexual orientation a painful secret for decades, but he threw himself into politics right away, volunteering for Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 presidential campaign, registering voters in Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer, serving as Boston Mayor Kevin White’s chief assistant in 1968, and graduating from Harvard Law school while he served as a Massachusetts state representative.

But it was his tenure as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee from 2007 to 2011, and his co-sponsorship of the 2010 Dodd–Frank Act—a sweeping reform of the U.S. financial industry—that solidified him as one of the most powerful members of Congress at the time. He retired in 2013, but his voice remains an important one, reminding us how fragile reform can be, and how effective political activism is less grounded in feel-good moments than it is in the dogged process of exposing hypocrisy and brokering deals with those in power.

Even during his years of secrecy, Frank never waivered in his support of the LGBT community or civil rights across the board.  He was the first member of Congress to voluntarily come out in 1987, and the first to legally marry his partner, a result of legislation he helped champion.  When accused by the far right of having a “radical homosexual agenda,” he said, “I do not think that any self-respecting radical in history would have considered advocating people’s rights to get married, join the army, and earn a living as a terribly inspiring revolutionary platform.”

Now 74 years old and married to a surfer, Barney Frank is still doing what he does best: speaking truth to power. Despite his somewhat cantankerous nature, he remains a true believer that government can help people make their lives better. Perhaps his greatest proof lies in his marriage and the respect of his colleagues. “I should’ve known you were here,” said one leading House Republican after bumping into Frank’s husband in a hallway. “Barney was nice to me today.”

Now that’s change we can believe in.


Barney Frank will speak at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 20, at Peace United Church, 900 High Street, Santa Cruz. Ticket packages are $30.45 and include two tickets and a copy of ‘Frank.’ Go to bookshopsantacruz.com for tickets.  

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