WASHINGTON — His nameplate has been unscrewed from the wall outside his office, a new state flag already planted in the hallway. The lease on his Capitol Hill apartment has expired, forcing him to crash at a fellow lawmaker’s. And for the first time in four decades, Representative Barney Frank will have no staff to transcribe his dictated memos: that means learning how to use a computer.
With his political career winding to a close, the 72-year-old Newton Democrat says he is worn out and eager to begin a new chapter, transferring his liberal ideals and sharp tongue from the halls of Congress to the more lucrative lecture circuit.
“People will pay me significant amounts of money to do what I used to do for free. And that will be fine,” Frank said during an interview this week in a cramped office off the rotunda in the Cannon House Office Building. “I’m ready to get out of here.”
Colleagues note that the famously cantankerous congressman known for his barbs as much as his intellect has adopted a lighter, more laid-back touch in recent months. But still smarting over the redistricting that prompted his decision to retire, Frank said he holds a grudge against some members of the Massachusetts delegation and is fending off a formal send-off they are trying to plan.
Frank, after serving 32 years in Congress and eight in the Massachusetts Legislature, is already burnishing his legacy, jetting around the country speaking — for free, at this point — on marriage equality, financial reform, and getting federal money into rental housing. He’s making the rounds on political talk shows and penning — actually, speaking into a Dictaphone — op-ed columns on the need to slash military spending as the fiscal cliff looms.
“That is the single most important issue,” he said. “I’ve been propagandizing.”
Frank dined Wednesday night with Representative Mick Mulvaney, a Tea Party Republican from South Carolina, to discuss how to push for further defense cuts. They collaborated in July on an amendment to freeze military spending.
He’s retained an agent — William Morris Endeavor, run by Ari Emanuel, the brother of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and model for the character Ari Gold on the HBO hit “Entourage.”
“They can start lining up speeches for me but they can’t tell me who they are . . . so I can’t be influenced in these last days,” Frank said.
When a photographer walked into his office Wednesday, Frank sat at his temporary desk overlooking the Capitol dome, dictating a book proposal about gay rights so his agent can begin negotiating his advance once he leaves office.
Frank, the longest-serving openly gay member of Congress who married his partner Jim Ready in July, says he is in a unique position to write the book. As a state representative in 1972, he was the first person in Massachusetts to file gay rights legislation.
“I’ve been in Congress every time there’s been a vote on LGBT issues,” he said. “I’ve been in on all these fights.”
Among his final fights in his waning days in Congress is his continued push to forbid discrimination against transgendered people. He re-introduced legislation to do that last spring but it once again died in the House in the face of GOP opposition. In 2008 Frank hired as a legislative assistant Diego Sanchez, who Frank says is the first openly transgendered staffer on Capitol Hill.
Frank has earned a reputation through his career for being prickly, with neither the time nor patience for sentimentality or stupidity. While chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, he banged the gavel freely and regularly engaged in verbal combat during hearings for the Dodd-Frank bill to overhaul Wall Street regulations — legislation Democrats praise as the most important financial reform since the 1930s and Republicans blame for thrusting the nation into a deeper recession. GOP candidates vowed to dismantle it during the campaign.
“Barney Frank’s legacy in Congress is one of the most destructive antigrowth pieces of legislation to come out of the Obama presidency, and he’ll have to deal with the consequences of the jobs he cost America by helping pass it,” said Barney Keller, spokesman for Club for Growth.
In the House, chatter routinely permeates the chamber when other members speak. But when Frank takes to the floor, a hush suddenly descends, said Representative Jim McGovern of Worcester.
“Republicans hate debating him because he makes them feel stupid, and he’s clear about it,” said McGovern. “Watching him perform on the House floor is like going to a Broadway show.”
Before his suite of offices was dismantled last week, Frank posed for photographs with individual staff members and autographed the prints. The team has since been dispersed, some shunted to a makeshift work space in a basement cafeteria now dubbed “Cube City,” where retiring members, or those who lost, bide time until the new Congress is sworn in next month.
Frank is writing recommendations to help his staff secure new jobs. So eager are they to cement Frank’s place in history that they e-mailed a reporter a 192-page document of links to news clips — alphabetized by issue — spanning every medium from the Newton Tab to the New York Times.
“This is a man who worked really hard and never let a detail slip by him,” said Representative Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat and close friend whose house Frank is now living in. “There aren’t too many members who have the guts to say what’s on their minds whenever they want to say it, and who are factually accurate. But he deserves another stage in life.”
That stage, it appears, will be off Broadway — at least for the night of Feb. 2 at the New York City Center.
A producer friend had asked Pingree to secure Frank for a walk-on part in “Fiorello!”, a Broadway musical about former mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York.
She asked Frank on the House floor between votes. He accepted; the show, he said, was one of his favorites.
“He completely recited the lyrics by heart in the middle of the House,” Pingree said. “But now the dilemma is how do I make sure it’s on his calendar? He doesn’t have a scheduler anymore.”
Frank says he is hiring a part-time secretary and signing up for his first e-mail address. In retirement, he will split time between Maine and Newton. By next fall, he hopes to be at teaching at Harvard.
“He’s put in his time. He looks forward to not having to report for floor duty and votes, but he’s not going to fold his tent up and disappear into the wilderness,” said Senator John Kerry.
Last week, Frank’s husband drove north with most of his personal belongings in a U-Haul van. Frank’s papers and other official documents will be donated to UMass Dartmouth. He will bestow the remainder of his campaign coffers – less than $32,000 as of the end of September — to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“I’m shutting down,” said Frank, one of the most prolific fund-raisers in Congress. He said his friends are in the process of raising money for an official portrait to be hung in the Financial Services Committee room.
But Frank’s departure from Washington is not all backslaps and champagne. Frank has accused Edward Markey, the dean of the delegation, of having been unwilling to exert influence on state lawmakers when they redrew district boundaries last year. Markey has said his role was to assure that the state’s congressional seats remain in Democratic hands rather than to protect individual members.
So as of now, there are no plans to fete the second-longest serving member of the notoriously clubby Massachusetts delegation whose members refer to each other as Jimmy (McGovern), Richie (Neal) and Eddie (Markey).
“I’m sure something’s in the works,” McGovern said. “Ask Eddie.”
“We’ll figure it out. We’ll figure it out,” Markey said.
“I do not want anything,” Frank said. “I do not want to pretend everything is wonderful.”
Tracy Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org