Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Thank You Barney Frank
At 11 pm on May 4, 1980, I went to a night of work in which I would spend the next 8 hours stocking grocery shelves. During the course of that night, I learned through the news reports that were piped through the public address system of the closed store that Father Robert Drinan was ordered by the Pope to retire from his seat in Congress representing 4th District of Massachusetts. It was also reported that state representative Barney Frank would run for the seat. Barney had given a guest lecture to one of my classes at UMass and I was dazzled by his intellect, his humor and, most of all, his tough-minded, practical liberalism. Here was a politician that made me proud to be a liberal. I worshiped him from afar.
While the thought came to me slowly over the course of the night as I sliced open cases of canned vegetables, priced them and placed them on the shelf, I decided that night to throw myself into Barney's congressional campaign. What did I have to lose? Frankly, the retail grocery business did not hold a lot of appeal. Little did I realize at the time that that decision was the defining event of my entire life. In fact, almost everything good that I have today flowed from that one decision, my career, my wife, my kids and my current precious circle of friends.
So it was that on the morning of May 5th, the first full day of Barney's first congressional campaign, I left the Stop & Shop, went home to shower and set off for the Massachusetts State House. Arriving into the commotion at Barney's cubicle (which is all he had as an office), I presented myself for duty. In fact, the timing of the Pope's decision was not convenient for potential candidates for the seat. This was a Monday and the filing deadline for getting on the ballot was the next day. Candidates needed to gather some large number of signatures representing every town in the district by close of business the next day. Thrilled to learn that I had a car, Polly Dow, Barney's only staff assistant at the time, handed me a batch of signature forms and dispatched me to Framingham, a town about 30 minutes drive to the west of Boston.
I was utterly clueless. I had never really worked on a political campaign before, outside of a one day leaflet drop for a candidate for Mayor of Boston. But this was different, I had to actually talk to people. So, I picked a corner at random and tentatively began accosting passersby. Most of that day is a blur, but I do remember one voter who got agitated at the mention of Barney's name and enthusiastically agreed to sign, saying, "Yeah, I hate that guy. We've got to get rid of him. Where do I sign?"
"Right on this line, sir," I said. "Make sure you print legibly." Even then, Barney incited passions on all sides.
The rest is history. After a grueling primary and an uncomfortably close general election, Barney was elected in the teeth of the Reagan landslide. He hired me to be his computer operator (yes, for you young folks, they had computers in 1980). I gave up my ambitions to be frozen food manager at Store 431 and went Washington with one suitcase, a futon and a bureau. That June of 1981, my future wife, Rita, arrived at Barney's office as a summer intern and all the elements of my new life were in place.
Much has been written since Barney's retirement about his grumpiness and, even rudeness. He's the first to acknowledge that he's not a warm and cuddly guy. But I've also seen great kindness and I've even seen him weep. He is who his, as are we all. But one episode stands out for me that explains my devotion, even love, of Barney all these years. After the 1980 campaign, Barney faced an even tougher campaign in 1982. He was redistricted into a race with a long time incumbent, Rep. Margaret Heckler, in which most of the district was hers. This time he won big. After that election, which essentially secured his seat, he gathered the staff and gave us a simple mission, helping poor people. He said that he would continue to vote in support of the whole range of liberal causes, but he would dedicate his considerable energies primarily to helping poor people. He instructed us to do the same. In my observation, over the 30 years since that meeting, he has never wavered from that commitment. It is the mission that inspired the title of this blog. I am so proud to have worked for him.
Now, thirty years later, I look back on a life that I could not have imagined while I toiled away in the middle of the night at Stop & Shop. And, frankly, I owe it all to Barney Frank.
Thank you, Barney.