It’s 8 a.m. on Election Day, and Barney Frank is doing his laundry. “Good morning,” he mumbles, lugging a gigantic white laundry bag over his shoulder as he leads the way from the basement up the stairs to his studio apartment in an unremarkable brick complex in Newton, Mass. We’re greeted there by Frank’s boyfriend, Jim Ready, a handsome and sturdy 39-year-old who bears an uncanny resemblance to Sarah Palin’s snowmobiling husband, Todd. Ready loves to surf more than snowmobile, and he’s secured promises from Frank, who does not surf, to accompany him on some beach excursions. “I’ve been to enough political events with him lately,” Ready says. “He owes me.”
Today, though, the 68-year-old congressman is busy trying to keep his job. There is little doubt that he will -- Frank is beloved in the district he’s served since 1981 and is running against Earl Sholley, an all-but-ignored Republican -- but Frank’s brand has taken a hit in recent months as Republicans “mounted a coordinated campaign to blame Democrats, with me as the point man, for the economic meltdown,” he says. In a poll taken a few weeks before the election, Frank was drawing only 55%. “I’m usually in the high 70s,” he tells me, “so that was a problem.”
Frank fought back the only way he knows how -- vigorously, and with a heavy dose of comedy. He produced two memorable campaign commercials: In the first he uses vintage footage of circus elephants as a backdrop for criticizing Republicans who “did the bidding of the financial giants that wanted no regulation.” The second ad opens with an unhinged Bill O’Reilly screaming at Frank during an October edition of The O’Reilly Factor. “The right wing is losing control,” the narrator says. Frank ends the commercial with his trademark wit. “I’m Barney Frank -- I approve this message and the chance to be on TV without interruption.”
In Washington, Frank used his position as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee to lash out at Republicans who blamed him for the subprime mortgage crisis. In an October hearing about the future of financial services regulation, Frank, looking particularly disheveled (wrinkled shirt collar, hair sticking up on the back of his head), gnawed on his gavel as Republican congressman Scott Garrett suggested that Democrats were not being intellectually honest and had blocked Republican amendments aimed at reining in Fannie May and Freddie Mac.
“The gentleman’s three minutes have expired,” a feisty Frank said. “And let’s talk about intellectual honesty…. He said earlier he’d offered amendment after amendment. In his head. But on the floor he offered one, which was withdrawn…. These amendments he talked about, in which he sort of implied that the Democrats had blocked the Republican efforts, are fantasies.”
Frank is much less ornery today. In fact, the man whom many call the grumpiest member of Congress has been uncharacteristically cheery over the prospect of his reelection, a Barack Obama presidency, and a healthy majority in Congress. When I joined Frank and Ready for dinner two days earlier at the Cheesecake Factory in Newton, Frank spent much of the meal smiling and fawning over Ready. The two became a couple three years ago when Ready pursued Frank at a gay political fund-raiser in Maine, where Ready still lives. “I’ve had a crush on Barney for 20 years,” he told me, rubbing Frank’s back.
The happy couple are back at it this morning, playfully debating which local anchormen are gay (“It’s pretty clear that all male weathermen are gay,” Frank says) and poking fun at Frank for not knowing how to use the Internet. “It’s probably for the best, because Barney would somehow manage to break the Internet,” Ready says with a chuckle. “He breaks everything.”
“I’m very clumsy,” Frank concedes, tying his tie. “I just get frustrated when something doesn’t work, so I’ll just start banging on it. ”
As we wait for Frank’s driver—a gay police officer named Steve Morin -- to pick us up and drive us to polling places where the congressman will greet voters, I ask Frank how many seats he expects Democrats to pick up in the House.
“I talked to Rahm Emanuel about that,” he says. “He’s the best political mind among the Democrats, and he said…”
“A better mind than you?” Ready interjects with a smile.
“Well, I’m as good as anybody at figuring out how to get things through Congress,” Frank says, “but I’m not as confident with the public. I’m best at gauging other politicians and figuring out what they want. And except for a few conservative Republicans who are completely useless, I can work effectively with pretty much anybody.”
As we’re about to leave the apartment, I ask Frank if there’s a danger that a Democratic majority might try to overreach. “Certainly,” he says, “but the one advantage we have is that things suck so badly right now, and everybody knows it, that there is a very low bar. I mean, look at the pile of shit we’re going to inherit.” Frank rifles through his closet for a suit jacket. “On the plus side, I’ve got at least four years to really help affect the things I care most about. Financial regulation, housing, and gay and civil rights. There is still so much to get done. And the possibility to do that pleases me very much.”
Is Barney Frank, whom one friend describes as a “lovable curmudgeon,” about to get…happy?
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