NEWTON Barney Frank, the irascible powerbroker who has survived scandal, repeated redistricting, and the ups and downs of the Democratic Party, today easily beat back his strongest challenge in years.
Frank defeated Sean Bielat, a little-known Marine Corps reservist who had waged a surprisingly energetic campaign that attracted national attention by attempting to blame the longtime congressman for mishandling the nations economic woes while serving as chairman of the House financial services committee.
At the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Newton, a couple of dozen Frank supporters mingled between a table of appetizers -- a Chinese-Jewish hybrid of knishes, potato latkes, egg rolls, and chicken skewers -- and a cash bar.
"He's extremely popular, and it's very hard to imagine him not winning," said Fred Leventhal, a retired history professor from Newton. "We've been voting for him for 30 years, and we're not about to stop."
By the bar, Octo and Sarah Barnett caught up with their longtime ward alderman from Newton, Lisle Baker, who said he was there "to cheer on the home team." All three said they could not imagine the district electing anyone other than Frank, whom they praised for his unapologetic honesty and long record of constituent service as well as his grasp of policy and process and his commitment to liberal ideals.
"He's probably among the brightest people we have in Congress," said Octo Barnett, a professor of medicine, adding that he appreciates that Frank is "not the soft-spoken type."
Baker said Bielat had inaccurately tried to implicate Frank as a lead culprit in the economic crisis. "That all began under the Republican-dominated Congress, and this is a situation where, if anything, Congressman Frank was instrumental in putting together the financial bill that basically has tried to right the ship," he said.
About 100 Bielat supporters gathered in the ballroom of the Boston Marriott Newton, including the challenger's mother, Susan Bielat, 61, of Rochester, N.Y.
"I'm so overwhelmingly proud of Sean," she said. "He is energized and he is grateful for the overwhelming amount of support."
Frank a powerful House committee chairman and influential Democrat who is as reviled on the right as he is admired on the left found his reelection bid threatened by economic instability, voter unrest, and the rise of the Tea Party, as well as by his own prickly demeanor.
But Frank has seen challenges before through 15 elections as a candidate for Congress, he has survived charges of carpetbagging, two rounds of redistricting, and a personal scandal that nearly doomed his career, while continuing to be embraced by voters back home in the Fourth District.
Bielat, drawing from the playbook that catapulted Scott Brown to Washington earlier this year, attempted to tap into voter frustration and anger while casting Frank as an arrogant Washington insider who barks at those he considers inferior and whose fingerprints, Bielat alleged, were all over the housing crisis and recession. He ran on the slogan "Retire Barney: Because we can't afford not to!" and drew donations and support locally and nationally through websites such as RetireBarney.com and ByeByeBarney.org.
But Frank held fast to the supporters who have returned him to office year after year.
"I think the Republicans are really irresponsible," said carpenter Jeff Lasky, 65, voting at Brookline High School. "They have a radical agenda that is detached from reality."
Frank, who never shed the accent of his native Bayonne, N.J., arrived in Massachusetts more than half a century ago to attend Harvard. The whip-smart, wise-cracking, and perpetually disheveled son of a New Jersey Turnpike truck-stop operator soon drew notice as a top aide to Boston mayor Kevin White and congressman Michael Harrington, before winning election in 1972 to the first of four terms as a state lawmaker.
On Beacon Hill, as in Washington later, Frank garnered attention for his rapid-fire wit, irrepressible drive, and savvy understanding of the lawmaking process, but he also ruffled plenty of feathers.
In 1980, Frank moved from Boston to Newton and ran for Congress after the Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a Jesuit priest and incumbent Democrat, stepped down following a worldwide directive from Pope John Paul II. In a long and bitter campaign, Frank eked out a victory in the Fourth District -- amid accusations that he was a carpetbagger and heavy-spending liberal -- in a year in which Republicans surged nationally behind the Reagan/Bush presidential ticket.
"Congress is what I want to do the rest of my life," Frank said, the day after winning.
Frank captured 70 percent of the vote in 1988, a year after becoming the first member of Congress to voluntarily come out as gay, and 66 percent in 1990, less than four months after he was formally reprimanded by the House for his dealings with Stephen Gobie, a prostitute, who claimed to have been running a prostitution service out of the congressman's apartment.
In the late 1990s, Frank assumed the national spotlight as a leading figure in the House against the impeachment of then-President Clinton, with his rapid-fire rhetoric, command of procedural rules, and crackling one-liners.
Bielat struck a chord with voters through his attacks on Frank for alleged coziness with Wall Street and for having a hand on the tiller during an economic crisis.
"I want Barney Frank out," said Lynn Eliopoulos, 45, of Foxborough, before voting at the John J. Ahern Middle School. Nearby, Teresa Payne and Judee Harrington drew honks from passersby while holding signs for Bielat. "He's educated, he's young, he's energetic, he's beholden to no one," said Harrington, 55.
David Abel and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Eric Moskowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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