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Frank ready to explain, not apologize

Iconic Democrat’s defeat is big prize for conservatives this year

Representative Barney Frank made the Tea Party movement’s list of Democrats to topple. Representative Barney Frank made the Tea Party movement’s list of Democrats to topple. (Gretchen Ertl for The Globe)
By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / June 14, 2010

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NEW BEDFORD — Allen Lentini, a cooking-equipment repairman with his name stitched on his work shirt, met Republican Sean Bielat at the counter of the Shawmut Diner and urged him into battle.

“I’m glad you’re a Marine; I hope you’re as stubborn as they come, because you’re in for the fight of your life,’’ Lentini told Bielat. “If you can bring down a Goliath like Barney Frank, you’ve accomplished something.’’

Still, even a supporter like Lentini acknowledged the odds do not favor Bielat. The 35-year-old Brookline conservative had never run for any office before he decided to take on Frank, the US representative from Newton who has not faced a serious challenger for nearly two decades.

In an election season defined by anti-incumbent animus, there are few prizes bigger than defeating Barney Frank. The brilliant, cantankerous congressman, reviled by the right, made the Tea Party movement’s “hit list’’ of Democrats to topple.

Always a liberal lightning rod, he has become a target for conservative commentators eager to offload blame for the nation’s economic woes. After all, Frank is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees a banking system that nearly imploded and the government-sponsored mortgage programs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which also had to be bailed out.

Frank won’t take the blame, saying the Bush administration begged him to help bail out banks and save the American economy from catastrophe. But he is preparing a spirited defense of his record nonetheless. And this reelection year, unlike most, he knows he is due for a fight.

“There’s this anger, so, yeah, I have to address it,’’ Frank said in an interview. “I guess what I’m doing is explaining myself.’’

He added: “In the business I am in, sometimes you get credit for the sun shining and sometimes you get blamed when it rains.’’

Already, he is trying to disentangle the chronology of the near collapse of the economy and clarify his role in leadership, which began only in January 2007, after many of the seeds of the problems had already been sown.

While voters like Lentini lament that Frank “had his hands right in’’ the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debacles, Frank said the Bush administration and the Senate beat back an earlier bipartisan effort to tighten oversight of the federal home mortgage program.

“If you listen to Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, there’s been this concerted effort to blame me for things that happened when I was in the minority,’’ said Frank. “My answer is, these people probably think I had control over [former Republican House speaker] Tom DeLay. The answer is, I didn’t have any control over Tom DeLay, and if I did, I wouldn’t have let him go on the dancing show.’’

That reference to DeLay’s bizarre appearance on “Dancing with the Stars’’ is trademark Frank, using his acerbic wit to beat back his critics. His sharp-edged quips and knockout sparring matches have generated grudging admiration and legions of followers on Youtube.

Last summer, at a town hall meeting in Dartmouth, he derided a woman named Rachel Brown who asked him how he could defend the president’s “Nazi policies’’ on health care. “On what planet do you spend most of your time?’’ Frank challenged her, refusing to engage her in further debate, which he compared to “arguing with a dining room table; I have no interest in doing it.’’

Now Brown is also running against him, as a Lyndon Larouche Democrat who lists one of her initiatives as colonizing Mars.

Also in the running against Frank is Earl Sholley, a father’s rights Republican who challenged him in 2008 and was convicted of assault and battery for spanking his daughter, who was then 14.

Bielat, the other Republican vying for the nomination against Frank, has a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and an MBA from Wharton. He worked as a program manager for iRobot Corp., making robots that destroy roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“People haven’t really had a choice on the ballot for a long time in Massachusetts,’’ Bielat said. “I think people are excited about that. We’re launching a legitimate campaign, a serious campaign.’’

Bielat has seized on Frank’s liberal pronouncements and badgering him for supporting loans to medical marijuana clinics and for calling for cuts in military spending. He has criticized Frank for backing Internet gambling when the economy presents many other concerns. And Bielat has attacked Frank on his suffer-no-fools temperament, calling him abrasive and rude to the public. The more Frank speaks in the district, Bielat has said, the more Bielat benefits.

But Frank said his constituents admire his candor. “Obviously, we do polling, and the answer we get in polling is that, overwhelmingly, people think I speak my mind honestly, rather than that I’m rude to people,’’ he said.

Still, Frank said he is prepared to answer voter concerns about the economy and his role in fixing it, which led critics to dub him “Bailout Barney.’’

In speeches and interviews, he regularly reviews the factors that led him to champion a bailout of Wall Street that did not fully protect constituents or help them keep their homes, as he had intended.

“I was in a difficult situation in 2008,’’ Frank said. “It was the Bush administration; they were in the driver’s seat. If we had simply refused to cooperate with them, I am convinced it would have been a total unmitigated economic disaster.’’

His leadership on the bailouts left some voters feeling disenchantment, if not utter disorientation.

“It was like Alice in Wonderland: Barney Frank and the liberals giving a trillion dollars to Wall Street,’’ said Ezra Abrams, a Newton scientist and self-described “ultraliberal’’ voter.

Whether Bielat or the other challengers can convert disenchantment into votes is another matter. Despite his disappointment in his congressman, Abrams said, he would not vote for any of Frank’s challengers based on his ideology.

For Bielat to get the kind of traction that Republican Scott Brown did in January, when he won an upset election to the US Senate, Bielat’s campaign would have to go viral, said Christen Varley, leader of the Greater Boston Tea Party.

“This is a monster race,’’ Varley said. “It’s as close to impossible as it gets for anyone to beat Frank. It just makes you want to do it that much more.’’

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com.