Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) announced Monday that he will not seek reelection in 2012, ending a three-decade career in the House.
Frank, 71, is the top Democrat on the Financial Services Committee and the architect, with former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), of the sweeping Wall Street regulatory reform law enacted in 2010.
"I was planning to run again, and then congressional redistricting came," Frank said.
Frank's retirement will deprive the House of one of its most colorful characters, a liberal stalwart known for his quick and often caustic wit.
Elected in 1980, Frank survived scandal early in his career and rose to become the nation’s most powerful openly-gay elected official. After coming out publicly, he became a champion for gay rights and helped campaign for an end to the military’s ban on gays serving openly. The repeal of that policy took effect this year.
His legislative legacy is likely to be the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill that passed in 2010 in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown that sent the economy into a tailspin in 2008. Hailed by the Obama administration, the law has drawn sharp criticism in the Republican presidential nomination fight, and one leading contender, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), even suggested that Frank be jailed, along with Dodd, for their support of the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the lead up to the financial crisis.
Frank’s announcement prompted a flood of accolades from Democrats, including a statement from President Obama that praised his work on financial regulatory reform.
"This country has never had a congressman like Barney Frank, and the House of Representatives will not be the same without him," Obama said in a statement. "It is only thanks to his leadership that we were able to pass the most sweeping financial reform in history designed to protect consumers and prevent the kind of excessive risk-taking that led to the financial crisis from ever happening again."
Frank beat back an aggressive Republican challenge to keep his seat in 2010 in what was otherwise a disastrous year for Democrats. He told reporters he thought he would have won again in 2012, but conceded that “it would have been a tough campaign.” He said he knew he would want to retire after the next Congress and thought it would be unfair to ask new constituents in a redrawn district to support him for just one more term.
In his typical candor, he plainly acknowledged his distaste for the less glamorous aspects of campaigning. “Look, I don’t like raising money,” Frank said.
The famously cantankerous Democrat also pointed out a bright side of life as a lame duck.
“Maybe you’re going to laugh, but one of the advantages to me of not running for office is, I don’t even have to pretend to try to be nice to people I don’t like anymore,” Frank said. As he predicted, the crowd of reporters and supporters in Newton erupted in laughter. “You may not think I’ve been good at it, but I’ve been trying.”
But Frank was adamant that he would not cash in on K Street.
“Let me very clear: I will neither be a lobbyist nor a historian. I promise you on both,” he said. He added that he planned to get rid of his Washington apartment and would spend his time in Newton and in Maine, where his long-time partner owns a house.
“My intention would be to do some combination of writing, teaching and lecturing,” Frank said.
He got a head-start on lecturing in his free-wheeling retirement press conference, during which he expounded on everything from Republican presidential politics to the president’s decision to station American forces in Australia, which he said “baffles me.”
In addition, the possible nomination of Gingrich as the GOP nominee, he quipped, “would be the best thing to happen to the Democratic Party since Barry Goldwater.”
Frank also offered a broad history, from his point of view, of the financial crisis that brought down major Wall Street firms and forced Fannie and Freddie into government conservatorship. “I, along with many others, did not see the crisis coming,” he said. “I was late in recognizing the problem, but it was when I was in the minority.”
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The press conference, which began early and lasted more than half an hour, provided a glimpse of what made Frank one of the most recognizable members of Congress in recent years. Apart from unusually combed hair, it was vintage Barney Frank: witty and combative, and quick to deride questions he characterized as “gotcha” or just plain dumb, like what he thought his legacy would be.
“People should leave their legacies to other people to describe,” Frank said.
On Monday, there were many attempts. Democrats lauded his work on Wall Street reform and his status as a champion of gay rights, a cause more personal for him than for most other members of Congress.
The chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), called Frank a "historic pioneer in American politics."
"This is a man of incredible intellect. A powerhouse who has championed the rights of consumers in the financial services community," Wasserman Schultz told reporters on a conference call. "I really have a heavy heart today. I'm going to miss him terribly."
Frank’s legislative career nearly ended before it really took off. He came out as being gay in 1987, a risky public revelation that prompted then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill to tell Frank that he thought, had he not been gay, he could have been the first Jewish Speaker, according to a biography of Frank by Stuart Weisberg.
Two years later, he was officially reprimanded by the House after he acknowledged that he had employed a male prostitute and drug user, Steve Gobie, who had operated a prostitution service out of Frank’s apartment before the congressman kicked him out.
Frank established himself quickly as a liberal politically, and he spent years pushing to reduce military spending. He voted against authorizing both U.S-led invasions of Iraq, although he said Monday that he regretted his opposition to the mission initiated by the first President Bush in 1991.
He has also championed the legalization of online gambling. Frank said Monday he would spend his remaining time in Congress trying to protect the financial regulatory law he helped to write, and to fight attempts to eliminate the Pentagon spending cuts triggered by last week’s failure of the congressional supercommittee to agree on a deficit-reduction package.
While Frank made no effort to disguise his partisanship, he drew praise from Republicans as well as Democrats upon his retirement announcement.
New York Rep. Pete King, a senior Republican on the Financial Services Committee, said Frank was “a good guy to work with” even though Republicans disagreed with him “90 percent of the time.”
“He can get to you sometimes,” King said. But while Frank was often partisan, he added, “he does it in such an intelligent way, you’ve got to hand it to him.” He said Frank was particularly helpful in passing legislation related to online gambling and restricting terrorist financing.
Behind all of Frank’s bluster, King said in an interview, “there’s a lot of substance.”
Although Frank's district was made slightly more competitive for Republicans during redistricting, Democrats insisted that despite Frank’s retirement, the Massachusetts district would remain firmly in the party’s control. In the 2008 presidential election, 63 percent of voters in the district chose Obama over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.); under the redrawn boundaries, 61 percent would have gone for Obama.
Frank said his decision was "precipitated by congressional redistricting, not entirely caused by it."
"There are other things I'd like to do in my life before my career is over," he said, referencing an uncompleted doctoral dissertation at Harvard University.
Frank's decision will be seen by some as a sign the veteran Democrat lacked confidence his party will retake the House next year.
Democrats have been publicly sanguine about their chances to flip the 26 seats they need to retake the majority, but political handicappers are leery of those claims in light of the president's low approval ratings.
Frank had no trouble winning reelection for more than two decades, capturing 68 percent of the vote in 2008. But the changing political climate and the special election of Republican Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.) in early 2010 gave the GOP reason to be bullish in Massachusetts, and Frank faced a tougher-than-expected campaign later that year, coming in just 11 points ahead of Republican Sean Bielat.
Democrats said Monday that Frank’s decision was a long time coming and did not catch them off guard, but they had no potential candidates to float to replace him.
Attention quickly turned to the handful of former Senate candidates who dropped out of the Democratic primary after Elizabeth Warren entered the race in October. Those include entrepreneur Alan Khazei, the Senate race’s initial front-runner before Warren launched her bid.
On the Republican side, Elizabeth Childs, a physician and school board member, had already announced plans to challenge Frank.
Frank’s announcement came one month after another Massachusetts Democrat, Rep. John Olver, made public his plans to leave the House at the end of the term. That retirement spared Democrats — who control every seat in the state’s congressional delegation — from an unpleasant intraparty battle. Massachusetts lost one House seat in the redistricting process, and Olver’s retirement allowed Democrats to draw a map with one less district without an incumbent-on-incumbent primary contest in 2012.
— Erik Wasson contributed.
This story was posted at 9:54 a.m. and last updated at 3:57 p.m.