Barney Frank By Donkey Hotey


Chris McCary AvatarBY CHRIS MCCARY Barney Frank grew up around a Jersey City truck stop, went to Harvard, and in 1981 became the first openly gay U.S. Congressmen. During his 30 year tenure in that absurd and corrupt institution Frank has been one of the loudest voices for liberal and progressive causes. In 2013, he retired from Congress and is currently working the lucrative speaker circuit. Frank will be reading from his just-published memoir FRANK: A Life In Politics From The Great Society To Same-Sex Marriage tonight at the Free Library. Last week we got the former Congressman on the phone to talk about scandal, Dodd-Frank, coming out in the ‘80s, the state of our un-democracy, the Tea Party, weed, dark money and darker politics, Occupy, Edward Snowden, the Patriot Act, the demise of the Fourth Amendment as we know it, the 2016 presidential race and more.

PHAWKER: What is the proudest moment of your congressional career? And, I guess conversely, what was the low point of it?

BARNEY FRANK: Well the low point was stupidly getting involved with a hustler in my vulnerable emotional state from trying to be confident and prominent. I felt terrible that I had damaged one of the causes I cared about the most. As for the highpoint, there were several, one was the passage of Dodd-Frank. Another was when Congress enacted the immigration bill of 1990 which repealed the anti-gay exclusion in American immigration law that had been there since 1900. I made that a personal crusade and I felt very good about getting rid of that one.

PHAWKER: Right, right, it was in 2010, what was it, 87 freshman Congressmen the Tea Party elected in 2010 in the mid-terms which seems like an unimaginable number.

BARNEY FRANK: When the right gets angry they vote, when the left gets angry they march. Voting beats marching.

PHAWKER: Don’t you think that campaigns should be publicly financed?Frank

BARNEY FRANK: Yeah, I’ve always voted for that. The paradox is: the angrier people get at government the more they oppose public financing which would be one way to resolve the problems they’re angry at. It’s too easily characterized as, “Oh, these politicians want us to pay their campaign expenses,” instead of being a way to diminish the influence of outside groups. Because part of this problem begins with the Supreme Court because what this right-wing Supreme Court has said was that–it had always been the case that you could not simply restrict certain kinds of campaign activity but you could do that if you made that a condition for accepting public financing. But this Supreme Court, in one of their other terrible opinions, struck that out. So now you cannot have public financing that is conditioned on people accepting these other restrictions in effect. But yes, it would be much better if things were publicly financed, it would substantially enhance democracy and diminish the overall advantage that the right-wing has over the left with the contributions and it would specifically diminish the influence of particular vested interest groups.

PHAWKER: The 113th Congress has a median net worth of about $1 million this year, which I think is the first time in history that the majority of members are millionaires. How can a body comprised of millionaires really understand middle-class, working-class families, what they go through in daily life?

BARNEY FRANK: Well, I’ll tell you, I thought Ted Kennedy did a pretty good job of advocating middle class issues. I think that’s a somewhat unfair question. You know, there are a lot of very wealthy liberals. You know who’s very rich? Nancy Pelosi. There hasn’t been a stronger defender of the average citizen and the true public interest I have ever run into.

PHAWKER: Do you think there has ever been an instance where a member of congress has left office with a lower net worth than before they took office?

BARNEY FRANK: Oh, my net worth went up because I had an inheritance. I would say this, most members of congress, most people who are members of congress would have made more money not being a member of Congress. I have made much more money since leaving Congress than when I was in Congress and I don’t lobby. I write and I lecture. Members of Congress are not motivated by personal wealth.
PHAWKER: With all due respect, Congressman, that one is too big to swallow. Looking forward to 2016, do you believe that Elizabeth Warren really represents what the Democratic party used to stand for, standing up for the little guy, and how do you feel–

BARNEY FRANK: The Democratic party is in pretty good shape overall. I would say this and here’s a fair contrast. Look at what we did in the two years when we had a FrankDemocratic President, House, and Senate. You got health care and financial reform – neither one of them as good as everybody on the left, many of us would like it to be – but still, very substantial public policy improvements. I think Paul Krugman does very good to document that. We repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. We improved the right of women to sue if they were being discriminated against in wages. We passed a very good law that doesn’t get a lot of attention that made it easier to crack down on people who go overseas to spend their taxes. So I think if you had the Democratic party in power, it would be very close to where a lot of liberals would like to see it. It is true when you’re in the minority, it’s gotten harder, you get picked off some. But I would say this, finally, I don’t think Elizabeth Warren, whom I’m very close to, is that much further to the left than the bulk of the party on most issues.

PHAWKER: How do you feel about going into the 2016 Presidential election with Hillary Clinton really the only logical or probable candidate?

BARNEY FRANK: Oh, I think she’s a pretty strong candidate. I am frustrated by her poor judgement on the emails. I hope she makes them all public and she’s said she’s going to and once they’re all out I hope it will be clear there was nothing bad in any of them, that it won’t be a problem and I’m reasonably optimistic we’ll get a bigger electorate and I think that you have serious problems of the Republican side. What I’m hoping is, and Scott Walker at this point is probably the strongest Republican candidate because he doesn’t have some of the other negatives, but I would hope that, you know, white working-class guys and union members realize they are voting against their own interests by pulling the lever for a guy who’s made his reputation among the Republicans by union busting.

PHAWKER: You were an early advocate for a sensible marijuana policy, and now that public opinion has started to shift–

BARNEY FRANK: 43 years ago. I brought up a bill to legalize marijuana in the Massachusetts Legislature in 1972.

PHAWKER: Now that public opinion has shifted in favor of legalization and two states have voted to legalize it, how do you think this is going to play out on a federal level? Do you think there’s any chance that it’ll get overturned?

BARNEY FRANK: Yes. I think there’s an interesting analogy between marijuana and same-sex marriage. They are both examples of there being legal bans on something because some people didn’t want other people to do it even though it had no effect on them. In both cases there is moral disapproval. However it is not considered good form and for most Americans to tell someone not to do something just because you disapprove of it especially if it doesn’t affect you. So people had to make up these negative consequences. People said, ‘Oh, if we have same-sex marriage it’s going to lead to all these bad problems with child raising and divorces.’ People said the same thing with marijuana. What happens is, first with same-sex marriage and now with marijuana, some jurisdictions allow this practice that people said was going to cause all these negatives. Guess what happened? There were no negatives. And once it’s clear there are no negatives then approval spreads and that’s what happened with same-sex marriage and that’s what’s happening with marijuana. And I believe you’re going to see it spread as it becomes clearer and clearer that there are no negatives and the experience in Washington and Colorado: no increase in crime, more revenue. I believe that within a dozen years or so that there’ll be widespread approval for legalization of marijuana and a federal policy that defers to the states.

PHAWKER: OK, then. Edward Snowden’s lawyer said that he’s willing to come back to the United States to face charges if he can be guaranteed a fair trial. What’s your take on what Edward Snowden did? Do you think he’s a traitor or a whistleblower?

BARNEY FRANK: Well, I’m conflicted, and I don’t know enough about the specific incident. I don’t know how hard he tried to go to members of Congress to see if they Frankcould do something. That’s the problem and while there is a benefit to what he did, there is a justification for secrecy. Now, I have, he was much more responsible than the Wikileaks people. I mean, the release of the diplomatic cables, for instance, was just outrageous and irresponsible and damaging. In Snowden’s case, I think that has been, you can’t make that charge against him, on the other hand I worry about where the limits ought to be, and if he genuinely tried to get various members of congress to do this for some protection and couldn’t, I’m conflicted. I think what he did had some specific benefits, but I guess the question is when is that OK and when is it not OK? Like in the Wikileaks case, it seemed to be not OK.

PHAWKER: Right. Where do you stand on this mass, warrantless surveillance of phone calls and keystrokes made by ordinary Americans every day?

BARNEY FRANK: I voted against the Patriot Act in 2001. And I continue to believe that warrants should be required. The fact is warrants are not as big a deal, it’s not that hard to get a warrant but there are bad guys we need to be able to spy on but I think having a judicial intervention is a good idea. I voted against the Patriot Act and that’s basically, I haven’t changed since then.