Sunday, April 23, 2006

Mr. Chairman - Barney Frank

Title: Mr. Chairman by Kevin John Sowyrda. Barney Frank seems quite relaxed and content for a man who, by many estimates including mine, is about to become one of the most powerful men in the United States. After all, the chairmanship of the House Committee on Financial Services brings to the holder of that heavy gavel legislative influence over nothing less than the following - the New York Stock Exchange, the Federal Reserve, The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the chartered federal housing agencies such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the NASDAQ, the Treasury Department, Housing and Urban Development, various financial companies and every single bank that could ever give you a free toaster in the U.S. Could I possibly have missed anything? The only organization which doesn't need to genuflect to this committee is the British Monarchy, but give Barney some time.
So there's Congressman Frank, an old acquaintance who continues to charm me with his veritable encyclopedic knowledge of political events long forgotten by lesser political giants, enjoying his sandwich at Club Café last Sunday night as I try to digest the power that's about to fall into his lap if his party, the Democrats, seize the House in the upcoming bi-election; an event even Newt Gingrich seemed resigned to in a Fox News Interview aired this weekend.
As the ranking Democrat on the committee which can decide everything from what your bank charges for an overdraft to the affordable housing grant your town does or doesn't get, Barney Frank is already referenced as "the real chairman" by the Wall Street Journal and happily discovers that getting calls returned from private sector luminaries is suddenly mere child's play. When the congressman's phone rings it's likely to be Kenneth Lewis, who heads Bank of America, or Chuck Prince, who runs Citicorp, or Jamie Diamond who reigns at JP Morgan Chase. So imagine what it will be like to be chairman in January 2007?
"I have a lot of new friends and my personality has not improved; which leads me to believe something's in the wind," says the famously self-deprecating Frank, the most noted openly-Gay member of Congress who enjoys broad, popular support in his Fourth Congressional District after a quarter-century of service.
Not too shabby for a guy once perceived as the frumpy law maker known for his very non-GQ attire. But that was Barney before he discovered stair-master and weight lifting, a better diet, perhaps a Macy's charge card, and indeed, I dare say, himself. Barney actually came out of the closet (did I actually use that cliché) just days before speaking at my college graduation in 1987 when he was the guest speaker at the Northeastern University commencement ceremony at the old Boston Garden. Suddenly there were no more secrets, just Barney being Barney. And being just Barney seems to be earning the frank Mr. Frank accolades from most unlikely points of destination on the eve of his accession to great power.
In a recent interview with Chris Matthews on the MSNBC program Hardball, departing congressman Tom Delay, a conservative's conservative, was asked to name "strong, moral Democrats," as Matthews put it. Go figure, the Texan whose not renowned for being Mr. Gay friendly, said without tongue in cheek that it was Barney Frank, hands down. "I respect him greatly. He's a true liberal, and he's unashamedly a liberal. And I respect that," said Delay.
But will the financial community be as gracious. Politics 101 teaches us that the conservative bankers of America would prefer a soul mate chairing the congressional committee which gazes at their comings and goings. But Frank says he's worked hard to gain the confidence of the country's financial magnates and that his own philosophy should not antagonize the business elite because, "you can be a responsible liberal," he said. "The banks might not prefer me but they are not threatened by me." The Newton Democrat provides an explanation which is not just simplistic when he says, "I am a liberal capitalist, and I want to take a little bit of the money they make and give it to poor people." Apparently the bankers are hardly shaking in their wingtips. The director for congressional relations at the American Bankers Association, Floyd Stoner, described Frank to me as "one of the smartest men in Congress," and a "social liberal with a market orientation."
The prestige of Frank's new jurisdiction, denied him only if the Republicans are able to stop the flooding in all compartments, is not lost on Frank himself, who once toiled as a political advisor to Boston mayor Kevin White, served four terms as a Boston state legislator and saved his political career when he bested Congresswoman Peg Heckler after their districts were merged by the state legislature in 1982, producing a bruising political brawl that is now a part of Baystate political folklore. "I think the committee can be the macro economic engine of congress," he said, already appearing rich with ideas on what to do and how to do it; which is quintessentially the Barney Frank Massachusetts voters have become accustomed to.
Intellectual prowess is not the only natural gift attributed Frank by even his Republican nemesis. As a Democratic consultant might say, "it's the dry sense of humor, stupid." Humor, quotes of note and debating skills which are of an Oxford-like level, have not only made Frank a staple on the evening news programs but have secured him a nick-name from the Nick-Namer-in-Chief. Frank says that President Bush calls him Saber Teeth; no doubt a respectful reference to the fact that few in the G.O.P. caucus can hold their own in a one-on-one with the liberal who seems to have a lot of secret conservative admirers.
Take this page from Barney's parodies at a recent committee hearing. After grueling - ok, painfully boring - testimony on the virtues or non virtues of accounting methods for stock options, Barney was the oasis of comic relief. "What does treating stock options as a regular expense on the balance sheet have in common with same sex marriage in Massachusetts," Frank asked a suddenly speechless lobbyist giving testimony against the new accounting method. "In both cases," said Frank, "a lot of people predicted chaos would erupt and nothing happened at all." Here you see original humor perfectly mixed with bold substance; a secret formula Barney Frank owns the patent to.
Only Barney Frank could discover this segue between fighting for Gay rights and overseeing the American financial empires. "I'll have a major non-Gay role in the government while remaining fully committed to Gay issues," he said. No one doubts it.
But alas, our time grows short. My clam chowder and salad have disappeared and the congressman's low carb dinner went quickly, understandable given he had just finished a workout an hour earlier. So it's time for dessert, but Frank's pallet is not tempted by cheese cake, not even that Weight Watcher's brand. His dessert is politics and if you know his track record you know his predictions will beat the best of the pollsters. We meandered a bit from state to national, and then from national to state, but here's how a guy with a lifetime of political victories under his belt sees events of our day.
Regarding Hillary: "She's the anti-Bush and she has that clearly staked out. If people are in a mood to repudiate Bush that helps Hillary." And, on the presidential front, Franks says the G.O.P.'s best bet for holding the White House is increasingly ironic. "The only way they can win is by nominating the person who is the most anti-Bush, and that's John McCain. I can't see us losing to anyone other than McCain."
Regarding George Bush; the congressman says he's never seen such anger directed toward the president, even in conservative enclaves; and says he's taken criticism from some Democrats for not supporting an impeach the president movement, now best associated with Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold who advocates a censure vote against Mr. Bush. "I don't think he's (Bush) dumb, but here's his problem - he came to the presidency not a serious person. I think he's above average intelligence but he lacks a basic knowledge base."
Regarding the midterm in November; Frank predicts senate wins for his party in Montana, Ohio, Missouri, and, perhaps most importantly, in Pennsylvania where Democrats are yearning to knock-off the senate's most conservative conservative, Rick Santorum. Closer to home, Frank thinks moderate Republican Lincoln Chaffee is in trouble, as the moderate Republican faces a tough primary bid from a well financed conservative.
Regarding the Massachusetts governor's race; Frank dismisses a recent Boston Globe story suggesting A.G. Tom Reilly could fail to garner the essential fifteen percent convention endorsement vote, required for placement on the September ballot; and Frank offered an interesting perspective on the independent candidacy of former Republican Christy Mihos, who plans to self-finance his own campaign. "Don't dismiss him," said Frank.
Finally, Frank regarding Frank is about the election for the House. With the chamber in recess until April 24, it's on the road for the chairman presumptive. This week began in Indianapolis and ends I forget where. Typical Barney, cris crossing the country to raise money for Democrats. He's unopposed in his district where his favorability rating is purely enviable, and just enjoying life as a guy whose comfortable about himself and his future.
Kevin John Sowyrda is a political writer and commentator. You can reach him at

No comments: