Frankel adapts to new life on Capitol Hill

After a long career in state and local politics, it looked like Rep. Lois Frankel’s (D-Fla.) time might pass without her ever ascending to the national stage.

Before 2012, her only congressional race had come 20 years prior, when as a state representative she contested the Democratic primary for Florida’s then-23rd District.

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The contest against intraparty opponent Alcee Hastings was particularly acrimonious, with Hastings calling Frankel a racist. Despite winning the initial round, Frankel was defeated in the runoff. For 20 years, it would be her last brush with national politics.

“What I learned from my first [run] is that I shouldn’t have run!” Frankel joked to The Hill. In hindsight, she says, the defeat was a partial blessing, as she was able to spend additional time with her son during his formative years.

After that bruising battle, Frankel returned to the Florida statehouse by reclaiming her own seat after another tough primary fight, this time against a former aide. In 2000 she became the minority leader, the first female to hold the office in Florida’s history.

In 2002, term-limited out of the House, Frankel was elected as the mayor of West Palm Beach. “It was a very intense, 24-hour, in-your-face job,” she said.

The Palm Beach Post described Frankel’s mayoral career as one of “big city feats [and] big city fights,” with the brash former New Yorker often scuffling with opponents on major issues like the construction of an expensive city center while also grappling with the 2008 recession which hit south Florida particularly hard.

With her two terms running out in West Palm Beach, Frankel was looking to take some time off when an opportunity fell into her lap courtesy of the Republican Party. In the Republican wave election of 2010, Democrat Ron Klein of the 22nd District was tossed out by conservative Republican Allen West.

After 20 years away from national politics, Frankel said West’s victory along with Klein’s decision to not re-contest the seat motivated her to rejoin the fray.

“With all due respect to Mr. West, his views, and the way he approached issues ... I thought it was not representative of the people,” she said.

Frankel’s decision to challenge West was helped by redistricting, which tilted the district more toward the Democratic Party. West’s position was so precarious, in fact, that he decided to move north and run in a different district, leaving Frankel without her expected opponent.

“By then, I was off and running,” she said with a laugh. Replacing West was former Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner. Much like her 1992 run, the race drew attention for being bitterly contested and very negative, but this time Frankel prevailed by 9 points.

Frankel has been known throughout her career as a proud liberal and especially forceful politician. A self-described “child of the ’60s,” she protested the Vietnam War in college and was involved with “everything that had an ‘ism.’”

In the Florida House, she was known as a dogged supporter of abortion rights. She was also an advocate for people with HIV, coauthoring Florida’s first antidiscrimination law for those who had been infected.

Now in Congress, Frankel remains a proponent of liberal priorities like reproductive rights and gun control, but she describes her top political priority as seeking ways to create jobs for Floridians.

A focus on jobs and similar issues, she said, is rooted in her experience as a mayor.

“Once you’ve been a mayor, you look to try to get things done,” she said. “Mayors, I think, tend to be more no-nonsense and you look for economic opportunities for your communities. It’s basically what my brain was trained to do for the last eight years.”

This focus has given Frankel a more pragmatic tone, and she has even admitted to being surprised at how collegial Congress can be.

“The two committees that I’m on are really very bipartisan. I would never know that the rest of the place was so ornery if I didn’t go into the chamber every day,” she said.

Frankel’s own act of bipartisanship was to team up with Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) to pass a bill seeking to boost security at U.S. embassies and consulates following the Sept. 11 killings in Libya last year. She has also been active on the issue of sexual assault in the military, getting the House to pass an amendment ordering the military to investigate its policies on the matter.

Though more upbeat than many about Congress’s bipartisan potential, Frankel does admit to slight frustration at being only a low-ranking member rather than the chief executive she was as a mayor.

“I do have to wait two hours to ask a question,” she said of caucus meetings. “Which means I get to listen to a lot of people, and I mean this respectfully, pontificating.”

Frankel’s coping method will be familiar to a great many grade-school students. Since her days as a law clerk when she had to sit through lengthy court cases, Frankel has been an avid doodler. “I found it helped my concentration,” she said. “I was doing, literally, hundreds of doodles, and one day somebody said ‘You’ve got to put this on canvas.’ ”

Four of Frankel’s colorful Modernist paintings hang in her office.

“It just comes out of my subconscious. If you asked me to draw you a doodle, I couldn’t do it.”

Though the fifth-oldest member of the freshman class in the House, Frankel says she could see herself staying for some time and shows no signs of wanting to retire after 30 years in politics.

“I’m going to be here as long as it’s satisfying, I’m healthy, and I’m doing the job at 100 percent,” she said.