Barney Frank faces a legitimate opponent for only the second time

Brookline businessman and Marine major Sean Bielat is the first credible candidate whom three-decade congressman Barney Frank has had to face since defeating Cong. Margaret Heckler in a 1982 redistricting fight. While Frank is likely to win the race for the 4th district seat in Congress, he is right to take Bielat seriously. Nothing can be taken for granted in a time when anti-incumbent fervor is sweeping the nation. Just how credible Bielat is in this crazy epoch was evident in the debate between the two on Jim Braude’s Broadside program on NECN on Monday evening.
In many respects, this is a classic Democrat versus Republican race. Barney Frank’s entire career has been in public service; Sean Bielat has run a business and favors private market solutions to the nation’s problems. Frank envisions a more activist government, supports additional stimulus as needed, supports the new health care law, wants to bring home our troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s also working with Cong. Ron Paul  (R-TX) in a bipartisan effort to cut military spending and bring home tens of thousands of military personnel stationed in countries like Japan and Germany that are capable of defending themselves. Frank would let the Bush tax cuts phase out for upper income people, couples earning over $250,000 a year.
Issue by issue, Bieleat takes the other side. He opposes any new stimulus, the new health care law, and reduction in military forces abroad. He wants to preserve all the Bush era tax cuts and privatize Social Security. Not surprisingly, they disagree on the don’t ask/don’t tell policy regarding gays in the military.

That said, each is open to more nuanced ideas in selected areas. Frank would tweak some aspects of the health law and hasn’t hesitated to criticize President Obama as issues warrant. Bielat concedes that some aspect of TARP legislation was necessary, though it should have been smaller and more transparent. Frank agrees on the need for more transparency.

But the differences on policy are significant and clear cut, as are the differences in depth of knowledge and understanding of important detail. Frank has a solid record of leadership, especially in financial services regulation. In his book On The Brink, former Bush administration Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson calls Barney “a pragmatic, disciplined and completely honorable poitician.” Bielat blames Frank for the economic meltdown, faults his earlier support of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac, and says the election is a referendum on Barney. Frank himself concedes in the Globe that he was late in seeing the problems with Fannie and Freddie.

Barney Frank is well known as a  blisteringly intelligent and effective lawmaker, sometimes grumpy and sartorially challenged, who does not suffer fools lightly and has been known to growl at even his staunchest supporters.

 Bielat, who comes off as boyish,  lacks the depth and range that people of the 4th district have come to expect in their Representative. He has never held any public office. He was a registered Democrat until 2007, but he has not bothered to vote in many elections. His first TV ad features man-on-street interviews that, according to David Bernstein of the Phoenix, were shot outside the district.

Nonetheless, Bielat is capable of making a coherent if superficial case to those who want to throw out all incumbents, even if it weakens the clout of the district in Washington. He speaks to people’s anger and frustration. But are they mad enough to vote against their long term self-interest?If the Republicans take over the House, Frank’s legislative skills, like those of Joe Moakley after 1994,  will be even more sorely needed.

Frank has been an incredibly hard worker, with a strong record of excellent constituent service. He has  attended to everything from the plight of New Bedford fishermen to the intricacies of the international financial system. (Even Charlie Baker called Frank his “new hero” for his role in fighting harmful fishing regulation.) According to the Newton TAB, he admits he doesn’t enjoy the job to the extent he used to. But this is not the time for him to go.

Bielat’s challenge has already succeeeded in limiting Frank’s role in campaigning nationally to protect other Democrats. But Barney is one incumbent who should not be on the endangered species list. It’s hard to imagine Congress without him.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

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