Congressman gets Frank with UMass students on politics
On Feb. 16, the Student Union Ballroom located on the campus of the University of Massachusetts was filled with students, residents and constituents eager to hear from guest speaker Congressman Barney Frank.
Three lounge chairs next to the stacks of Frank’s new biography set the stage for the event, with UMass journalism professor Ralph Whitehead interviewing both Frank and the author of the biography, Stuart Weisberg.
The book, “Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay Jewish Congressman,” is published by the University of Massachusetts Press.
Outside the double doors of the Ballroom were two UMass police officers, stationed to keep protestors from disrupting the event. Immediately beyond the doors was a single protestor with a few more lingering outside of the Student Union building.
The protestors were members of a local 912 group, a project of T.V. personality Glenn Beck and a branch of the Tea Party movement with members predominately from the Pioneer Valley. One protestor, who only identified himself as Keith, explained why he was protesting Frank’s presence, “[Frank] is a left-wing liberal bent on the demise of the country. He blames the recession on the banks but needs to take the responsibility himself.”
Another protestor held up a sign with a photo of Representative Frank behind bars dressed as a prisoner. When asked why, he said that he had grabbed a pre-made sign, assuming it was there to grab the attention of passerby’s.
Weisberg recounted how he gathered information for the biography from over 30 hours of interviews with Frank and 150 others. This is the first published work to document Frank’s life, from a working-class upbringing in Bayonne, N.J., to his undergraduate and graduate years spent at Harvard and his integration into Boston politics. The book, which Weisberg said he needed to cut down 400 pages, analyzes Frank’s experiences not only as a Jewish man but also as a homosexual man advancing into the national government.
When speaking about his childhood, Frank touched on the issues of prejudice he faced, “Though it is no longer an obstacle, when I graduated high school in 1957, being Jewish was an issue.”
He spoke of how he could potentially be denied jobs, and how few CEO’s and presidents of Ivy-league schools were actually Jewish.
In his first year in college, Frank admitted, “When I got to Harvard, I was overwhelmed.”
Frank remained at Harvard for the completion of both his undergraduate and graduate degrees, though he said he left before he had finished his doctorate. During such time, Frank became involved in local political campaigns in Boston.
In 1968, he left and became the Chief Assistant to then Boston Mayor Kevin White; a position that he said allowed him to be the connection between the people and those higher up in government. Frank spoke of how he remained this position for three years despite the toll it had taken on his health. Citing stress and long hours, Frank explained that he had become severely obese and unhappy while in this position. When asked if he had considered running for mayor he explained that as Chief of Staff he had more power than any city mayor.
When running for elected office in 1980, Frank cites the backing of both the students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and those of Boston University as the reason he won. His campaign included posters complete with his photo and the slogan “Who’s that with Barney Frank?” During the campaign, the posters were continually taken by Boston University students and hung in the dormitories, which Frank said, was all apart of his team’s strategy.
Frank represented 600,000 residents in a span of 29 towns, that extended from Newton and Brookline to New Bedford and Fall River. Of his constituents Frank said, “I represented the Yuppies before we called them Yuppies.” As an openly gay, Jewish man, Frank said that he was surprised to have been elected. Adding that he believed his appointment was the result of campaigning in an accepting district.
Having been in politics for over 30 years, Frank spoke of a time when there was middle ground in Washington. He attributed the changes in policy to Newt Gingrich, who changed the conversations from those of Reagan, who had once said, “after 6 p.m. we’re all friends”, and would also call the opposing party corrupt and immoral. Frank suggested this as the reason for the partisanship between the parties now, and why constitutions call politicians sell-outs when attempting to compromise.
Increasing the tension between the political parties, Frank suggested that it is because the parties receive their information from different sources.
“People are almost in a parallel universe; they’re not getting a common set of facts,” said Frank. “Everybody’s talking to people who agree with them.” He then elaborated that the people who include themselves in the right tend to get their information from FOX News and talk shows, while the left gets majority of their information from the internet.
During a 30 minute question and answer section, a PHENOM member asked Frank to sign his petition for increases in funding for public higher education, which the congressman eagerly agreed to sign. Adding that the issue over the rising costs of public higher education was an important issue which needs to be addressed. The next person at the microphone angered with the housing crisis called for Frank’s resignation to which he responded that his speech was not a question but an angered proclamation, and added, “your side is run by a demented felon” to loud applause from majority of the audience. To respond to the right-wing student, Frank explained that he had supported a bill in the House of Representatives to decrease foreclosures, in order to help Americans who were losing their homes do to unemployment not sub-prime mortgages.
Following questions, Frank sold signed copies of his book for discounted event rates.
Michelle Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story quoted Frank as saying he graduated high school in 1971. Frank graduated from Bayonne High School in Bayonne, N.J. in 1957.