Barney Frank on Clinton, Congress and his gay rights legacy

Self-described as America's only left-handed, gay, Jewish congressman, Barney Frank retired from federal politics in 2013 after more than three decades in the US House of Representatives. The first US politician to voluntarily reveal he was gay, Frank was on the frontline of a number of early LGBT rights battles. More recently he went head-to-head with Wall Street at the direction of President Barack Obama as one of the chief architects of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Before his first trip to Australia in February, he spoke to SBS about his political legacy, the 2016 US presidential race and Australia's failure to follow the US on marriage reform.

Cover image: Barney Frank at the US Capitol, on November 29, 2011 (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images).
Being Frank About Being Gay

Having confided in friends privately for some time, it was six years into his tenure representing Massachusetts' 4th district that Barney Frank decided to come out publicly. The first to do so voluntarily in US Congress, Frank chose the Boston Globe newspaper to reveal all.

His decision to be honest about being gay wasn't universally well-received by his Democratic Party colleagues, many of whom attempted to discourage him from doing so.

"It was reasonable to think in 1987 that my coming out might make me less effective."

“Remember, this is 28-years-ago when public opinion was still somewhat negative. It was reasonable to think in 1987 that my coming out might make me less effective," he said.

Frank said it's not something you'd hear from Democrats today, but that there was still plenty of hesitation in coming out across the political aisle.

"It’s still the case that if you’re a Republican member of congress and you come out, it's damaging to you. It damages you in the Republican primaries and among other Republicans," he said.

“On the Democratic side there’s complete, total encouragement for coming out with the voters and among the party leadership.”

The media coverage of his 'coming out' was generally sensitive. (Incidentally, Frank believes he was last man in history to be described as “homosexual” in the New York Times as a matter of editorial policy, before the much more palatable 'gay' descriptor became its standard.) The press out of the way, his next big hurdle ended up being congressional spouse etiquette at the White House Christmas Ball of 1987.

"The man I was dating [Herb Moses] and I were the first couple to show up at the White House as an openly gay couple, but there were still limits. When we first got there, there were members of congress dancing and we were worried that dancing was a step further than we were ready for," Frank explained.

“So we asked two women members of congress, Nancy Pelosi and Senator Barbara Boxer, if they would get us started. So we went out on the dance floor as a foursome and within a minute or two we were a twosome.

“I felt it was important to make the stand, but you couldn’t do it all at once."

Photo: Barney Frank at a news briefing with then Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi in 2008. (Chris Kleponis/AFP Photo/Getty Images.)
Don't Ask, Don't Tell

When President Obama repealed the infamous 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' (DADT) policy for openly gay and lesbian service members in 2010, it marked the end of nearly 20 years of advocacy by Barney Frank to have the military ban scrapped.

In 1991, Frank was already using his position on the House Budget Committee to grill the likes of Dick Cheney and Colin Powell over the discriminatory policy. His attempts to convince President Bill Clinton to repeal it completely were ultimately unsuccessful, leading to Clinton's implementation of the DADT policy to replace the outright ban in 1994.

“To give Bill Clinton his due, he was opposed to [the gay military ban], he just didn’t have the political strength to do it," Frank said.

"We have never been able to get anything done legislatively for LGBT rights unless we have a Democratic House, Senate and president.

"The Republican Party hasn’t been as aggressively homophobic as it was in the past, but it still is totally opposed to us."

After the Democrats lost substantially in the 1994 midterm elections, the next time it had a Democrat-controlled House, Senate and president was following Barack Obama's sweeping victory in 2008.

"We were doing healthcare and other things - I became concerned we were going to lose this opportunity."

Frank said the DADT repeal was a high priority, but that he worried that some of the Obama administration's other agenda items would take precedence before they had a chance to roll it back.

"When we did have that majority I became concerned that it was slipping – we were doing healthcare and other things - I worried we were going to lose this opportunity," he said.

"In October of 2010, before the election, I urged the president to make sure we did it as soon as Congress reconvened. And of course, as it turned out, the Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 election.

"If we hadn’t got it done in that two-month period it still wouldn’t have been done today. So that’s why the timing was so urgent."

Photo: US President Barack Obama after signing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act in Washington, DC, on December 22, 2010. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.)

When it was signed into law in 2010, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was hailed as the most significant change to financial regulation in the US since the reform that followed the Great Depression. A direct response to the 2008 financial crisis, the White House went as far as to call it the "most far reaching Wall Street reform in history".

Depending on which side of the political fence you sat, Dodd-Frank was either an unnecessary hit to a recovering financial industry or didn't go far enough to crack down on dodgy lenders and practices.

The lead-up to this year's presidential election has seen both Democrats and Republicans return to sparring about its impact.

“No question, the Republicans will substantially undo the financial reform bill [if they're elected]," Frank said.

“First of all, they can do it effectively just by a president appointing people who don’t really care about it. I mean, some parts of it will be protected, but this is legislation which requires active enforcement.

“If they do attempt to roll it back it would be unpopular; I think it will be a good fight."

Frank's criticism of attempts to amend his financial reforms isn't reserved for the Republican side however. Dodd Frank was mentioned numerous times during NBC's Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina earlier this week, whith Senator Bernie Sanders promising to go further in attempts to break up large financial institutions.

“Senator Sanders, who I think is unduly negative about the bill - although he voted for it – is essentially campaigning as if it didn’t do any good," Frank said.

"Although he’ll say if you ask him, ‘oh, no no, it’s important, I voted for it,’ but he’s contributing to an attitude of devaluing it. So I’m afraid the Republicans, whatever they do, will be able to be more negative than I originally thought."

Photo: US President Barack Obama with Connecticut Democrat Senator Chris Dodd (C) and Massachusetts Democrat Representative Barney Frank (R) after signing the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in Washington, DC, July 21, 2010. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.)
The Clintons and Election 2016

In his autobiography, Frank talks openly about switching to a more pragmatic approach in endorsing Democratic candidates after a few missteps involving party elders like Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis.

It gives you something of an insight into his endorsement of Hillary Clinton in this year's presidential race - and his vehement opposition to Senator Bernie Sanders' candidacy.

“I also believe [Sanders] couldn't win the next election. And I think on many of these issues she has a more thoughtful approach than him."

“I’ve been a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton, I’ve campaigned for her. In the area of financial reform, for example, she’s got it right more than Senator Sanders. She’s got a more sophisticated and effective approach than he does," he said.

“I also believe [Sanders] couldn't win the next election. And I think on many of these issues she has a more thoughtful approach than him."

Indeed, Frank has even written entire op-eds explaining why progressives shouldn't support Sanders.

If you were to read a history of the Clintons' political dynasty, Frank's name would pop up in a number of high-profile capacities. Having first met Bill Clinton in 1991 and later pushed him on the previously mentioned gay military ban issue during his presidency, Frank ended up sitting on the House Judiciary Committee defending Clinton (masterfully by most reports) during his famous impeachment hearings.

Frank is even credited with having convinced President Clinton not to nominate Democratic senator Sam Nunn as US Secretary of State. In a post-script to his autobiography, he admits sending a memo to Clinton about Nunn's "consistent record of homophobia". He also refused to defend Clinton against any future attacks that he was against the fair treatment of LGBT people, should Nunn be nominated.

“I think that the nominee will be either Trump or [Senator] Ted Cruz who, from an ideological standpoint, may be even worse."

While he's confident of a Clinton nomination, he's less sure about the Republican side of this year's presidential race.

“I think that the nominee will be either Trump or [Senator] Ted Cruz who, from an ideological standpoint, may be even worse," he said.

"I still believe that Trump will lose, but if either of them is the nominee it’ll be a very good year for the Democrats.”

Photo: Barney Frank at the 2012 Democratic National Convention (DNC). (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images.)
Australia and Marriage Equality

Frank touches down in Australia next month to address public policy research group the McKell Institute in Sydney on February 19.

"Barney Frank is a giant in the world of finance and the fight against inequality," McKell's executive director Sam Crosby said.

"He wrote the rules for 21st century banking in the world's most powerful economy and undoubtedly shifted the balance in favour of the consumer."

"Allowing people of the same-sex to marry has one effect: it makes us happier and it has no negative impact on anybody else.”

Married to his husband Jim Ready since 2012, Frank is keen on shifting the balance in favour of same-sex couples in Australia, too. Having been a representative of a US state that has now had marriage equality for more than 10 years, and arriving just a few weeks out the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, he said he comes with a message for Australian politicians dragging their feet on marriage reform.

“Look at the fears that people spread about what will happen if we were allowed to marry each other and then measure that against the reality of which zero of that came true," he said.

"Understand from the American experience and from countries like Canada that allowing people of the same-sex to marry has one effect: it makes us happier and it has no negative impact on anybody else.”