Partisan Hero

Commentary: Center Field

All the talk of mavericks during the Oct. 2 vice presidential debate started me humming the theme from The Magnificent Seven. There they are, a ragtag bunch of rugged loners in a wild country. Will they learn to work together in time to save the beleaguered townsfolk from the marauding villains? Hey, wait a minute – they are the marauding villains.

Maybe I just have movies on my mind, since Washington’s gay film fest starts next week, but the McCain campaign increasingly feels like a movie in which the director is desperately trying to make us suspend our disbelief and buy the Republican nominee as the guy to fix the wreckage wrought by the Republican incumbent over the past several years.

Barney Frank is having none of it. The congressman from Massachusetts pounds a simple point he has made for years regarding the gay dimension in politics: that the far better record of Democrats on gay rights points to a partisan conclusion.

Defending their endorsement of John McCain, Log Cabin Republicans tout his opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment. But he also endorses anti-gay state initiatives that Barack Obama opposes. They point to Democratic politicians’ opposition to marriage equality (displayed by Joe Biden last week) to discredit gay Democrats, but Obama supports civil-union legislation while McCain does not. Sarah Palin’s talk of tolerance mirrors the ex-gay movement’s love-the-sinner rhetoric, and her suggestion that private contracts are sufficient for gay couples is contradicted by family-law attorneys.

Frank wrote in 2004, ”Only if an attempt to make gay bashing a national political platform clearly fails will Republicans who dissent from that view begin to get the political strength to free their party from its shackles.” The Palin choice suggests that the GOP’s shift in emphasis this year does not reflect an ideological change.

On Real Time with Bill Maher in 2006, Frank noted conservative dissent against the Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling overturning sodomy laws: ”The Republicans do think it should be a crime, and I think there’s a right to privacy, but the right to privacy should not be a right to hypocrisy. And people who want to demonize other people shouldn’t then be able to go home and close the door and do it themselves.”

Long one of the smartest and wittiest people in Congress, Frank is now one of the most powerful. As Financial Services Committee chair, he has been instrumental in addressing the financial crisis. On Sept. 29, after a vote on the $700 billion financial-recovery bill fell a dozen votes short and Republicans blamed partisan remarks by Speaker Pelosi, Frank was withering: ”Because somebody hurt their feelings, they decide to punish the country…. Give me those 12 people’s names, and I will go talk uncharacteristically nicely to them, and tell them what wonderful people they are, and maybe they’ll now think about the country.”

Frank is one of the sharpest debaters the House has ever had, and his toughness is essential. A favorite Republican tactic during the current Congress is introducing motions to recommit in order to derail bills that are about to pass. Responding to one such motion in April 2007, Frank said, ”Members on the other side had every opportunity at the committee and in this open rule fully to debate this and to offer amendments. They chose not to. They chose instead to legislate by ambush.”

Frank was addressing a similar motion in November 2007 during debate on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act when he grew emotional while describing the impact of homophobia on 15-year-olds and concluded, ”Please don’t turn your back on them.” The House erupted in cheers.

Frank has no shortage of detractors (a right-of-center gay Washingtonian recently created a Facebook group called ”Capital Punishment for Barney Frank”), but that is a sign of his success. As I watched him respond to Bill O’Reilly’s charges of cowardice and unmanliness last week by rebuking the Fox News demagogue for his ranting and bullying, I thought how lucky we are that Frank, as The Almanac of American Politics wrote in 2006, ”is one of the intellectual and political leaders of the Democratic Party in the House – political theorist and pit bull all at the same time.”

He’s one of us, he’s right where he should be, and he’s at the top of his game.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist whose work has appeared on Salon.com and the Independent Gay Forum (www.indegayforum.org). He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.

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