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Rep. Barney Frank Faced A Tough Re-Election Bid

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Republicans have suddenly found themselves with the prospect of winning a congressional seat in Massachusetts that's been safe for Democrats for 30 years - now that Barney Frank is leaving Congress. After considering the newly redrawn lines for his district, Frank announced yesterday he won't run for reelection next year. He's a leading liberal and one of the first openly gay members of Congress. And we have more from NPR's Tovia Smith.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Frank says he'd pretty much made up his mind to quit, and then decided to stay and fight for financial regulations and cuts in military spending. But Frank says when his district was redrawn, cutting democratic strongholds and adding more conservative towns, he realized he'd have to put those issues aside and spend all his time trying to sell himself to hundreds of thousand of new voters.

REPRESENTATIVE BARNEY FRANK: In some ways you get the worst of both worlds. You are tagged as an incumbent, but you haven't had a chance to show those people what your incumbency can mean in terms of being their advocate.

SMITH: Frank says he can be at least as effective outside Congress. And he says, after three decades it'd be a relief to no longer, quote, "have to pretend to be nice to people I don't like."

FRANK: Free at last, free at last. Great god almighty, I'm free at last.

SMITH: It'd be fair to wonder what an unfettered Barney Frank would sound like. He's not exactly a guy who's known for biting his tongue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SMITH: At a town hall meeting on health care, Frank erupted at a voter who asked why he continued to support what she called Nazi policies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

FRED SAINZ: He is such a Pit bull on behalf of what he believes - absolute Pit bull.

SMITH: Fred Sainz from the Human Rights Campaign says Frank has been a tireless advocate not only for gay rights, but also for everything from affordable housing to consumer protections.

SAINZ: There is absolutely no doubt that his advocacy will be a loss for all Americans.

SMITH: Frank is also known as a deal broker and as brilliant as he could be biting. President Obama praised his leadership, saying the financial regulation in the Dodd-Frank bill wouldn't have happened with out him.

Frank's influence is all the more impressive given the low from which he recovered. In 1987, Frank was struggling to explain how a boyfriend could have been running a prostitution ring from Frank's home.

FRANK: I don't remember specifically telling him not to engage in prostitution, because frankly I was as likely to tell him not to burn the rugs. I mean, you just don't think of - some things you sort of take for granted.

SMITH: But even 25 years ago, it never really hurt Frank at the polls.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Lots of luck. Boy are we going to miss you.

SMITH: As Frank embraced disappointed supporters yesterday, Republicans from Washington to Massachusetts were cheering the news.

TOM MOUNTAIN: Joy to the world. Thank you. Republicans across the state are ecstatic. I am ecstatic.

SMITH: GOP activist Tom Mountain is one of many hoping to build on momentum set when Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat. Mountain says Democrats, even in Massachusetts, should worry.

MOUNTAIN: He knows he could lose. Barney is retiring now rather than being retired by the voters. Make no mistake about it.

SMITH: Republican leaders say their phones are already ringing with would-be candidates. Democratic circles are also buzzing. Party leaders say someone will emerge who can hold Frank's seat. There are plenty who have the will. But as one Democrat concedes, maybe none who can match Frank's wit.

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

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.
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