Openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) was in Los Angeles over the weekend for an appearance on Jay Lenoâs Tonight Show and to speak at the Greenlining Instituteâs Economic Summit. Â He also attended a Hollywood fundraiser thrown Saturday by attorney and former gubernatorial candidate, Ron Palmieri and his partner, Jeffrey Simpson.Â California Assembly Speaker John Perez also attended, lending his support to Frank and his Congressional and political leadership.
I had a chance to talk with Frank before he spoke to the gathering. Among a number of topics, he talked about the âgood provisionsâ for transgenders in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and how he thinks the bill will pass the House but still stresses that the LGBT community needs to call their own representatives to make sure the votes are there.
âIâm hoping to get a vote on it in committee [House Committee on Education and Labor, chaired by California Democrat George Miller]. Â Iâm doing a lot of work on it quietly, to get the issues involving transgender access to rooms where people have their clothes off. Thatâs a fact that you have to deal with, particularly for people who have not had an operation.
And weâve worked hard. The chairman of the committee involved â George Miller â had a major role in healthcare. But within the last few weeks, just before we left [for Spring break], we had a meeting in the Speakerâs office [Speaker Nancy Pelosi] with the Majority Leader [Steny Hoyer] and myself and chairman of the committee George Miller – and we had a lot of things worked out,
So what the committee needs to do now is make sure we have the votes. Thereâs only one way to do it â it doesnât mean marching, it doesnât mean waving signs. It means calling up their representatives – the members of the House who represent them – and say, please vote for this bill and please oppose watering down the transgender provision. But the House has already passed the bill without it, which helped us because it helps us focus. Call people and say we want you to support the bill and donât water down the transgender provision â because thatâs the point of political trouble. And they should start calling now. I believe weâll get a vote sometime this month.”
I asked about Kerry Eleveldâs story on the whip count on the ENDA bill. But Frank said that was a distraction.
âI donât want people to get bogged down in â not just with the leadership helping us. What people need to focus on is lobbying their legislators. We have all that we need form the leadership to bring this bill up. We now need to get the votes. Yes, we will be checking the membership to see where they are. But the more people have called the better that count will be.â
I noted the concern that even if ENDA passes the House, it wonât got anywhere as a stand-alone bill and must be attached to another piece of legislation. Frank said:
âThatâs a problem. But again â Iâve been begging people for years to lobby their senators. And I have very little sympathy with the armchair strategists who say â making it a piece of another legislation is hard to do. I really advise people in the community not to take the easy way out of trying to devise parliamentary tricks to get over the obstacles.
Yes, as soon as theyâre through lobbying their representatives, theyâve got to lobby senators. Thatâs the answer. Thereâs no trickery here. Thereâs no slight of hand. We need to get the votes and theyâve got to call senators and get senators to vote for it â and if they canât get senators to vote for it â they shouldnât be surprised if we lose.
Look Iâve been telling people for years, we have a problem because still thereâs some resistance on the transgender issue. People donât want to hear that. I think maybe theyâre afraid of having it tested. I believe the House will send the Senate a bill that will have good transgender protections â people have been telling me itâs no problem. We will mark it up. Well, letâs see. The only thing people should do if they want to get this bill passed is call their representatives, call their senators and after theyâve called â get other people to call their representatives and their senators, not people from some other place.â
Are petitions effective?
âIt has less effect. Itâs better than nothing. Sending in your own individual letter is the best or your own email or go in to see them. Sending the same copy of a letter â itâs better than nothing. Signing a petition is least important because it doesnât indicate that much activity.”
I asked because it seems that some people think that just by signing a petition, theyâve completed their duty as an activist. Frank said:
âOr by marching on Washington. They tell me they were going to put pressure on Congress. All they put pressure on was the grass. Members of Congress didnât know it [the National Equality March] happened because they didnât call anybody. And I donât understand why they think that works. By the way â you know who understands that? The National Rifle Association. They donât have shoot-ins and rifle marches â they write and call. The NRA â person for person – Â they are extremely influential because they lobby that way.
So again â weâve got the parliamentary ducks in order. Help us get the votes.â
How has the transgender issue been handled?
âEssentially, there are full protections for people who are transgender with a couple of provisos: One â the employer can ask for a gender consistent dress code. No mustaches and dresses. Two â people with one set of genitals do not have a legal right to get naked in front of the other set, is the basic way to put it. Some accommodation has to be made there.
If you insist on the right for unrestricted access to bathrooms â we lose. And weâre making some accommodations here. And we worked it out with the transgender community. We had people very upset when we raised it â it because clear we couldnât pass the bill without it.â
I spoke with Rep. Millerâs press secretary Aaron Albright about when we can expect a vote on ENDA. He said ânothing is scheduled yet, â thought Chairperson Miller âcommitted to a vote early this year.â I asked him when âearlyâ ends â but he would not speculate on when a date might be set.
I also asked Frank about Donât Ask, Donât Tell and the effort to repeal that this year. Frank said:
âIâm frustrated. Iâm disappointed with the administration, in part. There have been some good things. Admiral Mullen saying what he said was spectacular. Â And enforcing it the way it was originally supposed to â even though I didnât like it â discharges can be cut by over 90 percent.
But there will be a vote in the House. Rep. Patrick Murphy is going to offer his amendment. Â I think weâll pass it in the House and then in the Senate â Iâm told by some of the Senate leadership that they donât think they have the votes to repeal it. People ought to talk to Sen. Carl Levin, heâs the key guy whoâs our great ally.â
Might Sen. Levin offer his own amendment? Frank said,Â âHereâs my perspective: Senator Levin is our friend and heâs thinking serious about it and you ought to talk to him.â
I asked about the lack of leadership from President Obama on getting a bill to repeal DADT this year. Frank said:
âHis not being for it will give people an excuse to not vote for it. Thing is â weâve done hate crimes. We do ENDA. Â Itâs a big agenda all at once. At this point â the Presidentâs refusal to call for repeal this year is a problem.â
Is there still time? Frank said, “Yeah. The Military Re-Authorization Bill still hasnât come up in the House and theyâre going to come up. So thatâs not a problem. Itâs always attached â thatâs how it was done in the first place.â
I also asked Frank about the two most recently proposed bills â one to extend COBRA benefits to domestic partners offered by Sen. Barbara Boxer and one to extend Social Security benefits to domestic partners coming up from Rep. Linda Sanchez. Frank:
âI was very disappointed that that [COBRA] was left out of the healthcare bill. And thatâs part of the probelm we have â we have no Republicans on the healthcare bill. We tried to get the tax benefits and we lost because this whole domestic partnership thing is controversial with no Republican votes and the margin was so close. I was very frustrated. I worked very hard to try to get that done. So I am not optimistic about anything in that area.
I think itâs very important. The only chance we have on any domestic partnership thing this year would be the bill I had once introduced â Tammy [Baldwi] picked it up – for federal employee benefits [the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act]. That one has a chance â I donât think any other domestic partnership has a chance.â
Same with the proposed Social Security bill. âI donât think any of it has a chance right now,â Frank said.
I asked him if any of these bills could be added as a âfixâ to the healthcare reform bill. He got angry:
âYouâre driving me nuts! There are no tricks. There are no fixes. You need the votes. There are no ways to sneak it in. You need the votes for it and itâs controversial. People have these crazy views â what does a fix mean? Does it make it easier because we call it a fix? That doesnât work. Itâs a recognition of same sex domestic partnerships. You can call it fix. You can call it ice cream. Itâs still the same thing. Please stop trying to say âWell, weâll put it on this bill, weâll put it on that bill.â You still need to get the votes.â
I explained that for those of us watching the healthcare debate who do not live inside the Beltway, we constantly heard analysts say that the public option or other measures were taken out of the bill to pass it â but they would be put in as âfixesâ later. Hence my using the term âfixâ to describe a way to get the bill passed. Frank then understood the framework I was using and said:
âThose are relatively non-controversial. Lobbying legislators is hard work and people want to do everything else but. They want to have marches. They want to think of strategies. And all what we need to know is to do that. They ought to think more like the NRA.â
Fundraiser host Ron Palieri noted that the event was not so much to help Frank win re-election as to help him raise money to help other legislators and candidates get elected and to fight back against the right wing.
In his remarks, Frank said that the âexplicit bigotryâ of the right wing didnât work so they are now trying to divide Democrats â to get African Americans and Hispanics to be antigay, for instance. Having one of the most prominent Hispanics be the Speaker of the California Assembly â John Perez â helps confound those efforts â especially since Perezâs jurisdiction is âbigger than most European countries.â
âWe are fighting for the soul of this country,â Frank said, talking about how he and his partner Jim Ready were âassaulted by a mobâ after leaving his DC office. Frank said that while there âabusiveâ people on the Left during the 1960s and 1970s â they didnât have national radio talk show hosts agreeing and magnifying them and their tactics through a âright wing echo chamber.â
And, Frank noted, even if a story is implausible – it still must be refuted. He told a story of how right wing talk show host Laura Ingraham tweeted that âsourcesâ had told her that Barney Frank was quitting Congress to take a lush job with a bank. âI donât know if the sources where inside or outside of her head â but there were no call to check the facts.â
He also talked about after January 21, 2009 – the day Obama was sworn in â âeverything went southâ and since then there has been âwide spread amnesia.â For instance, âthe administration passed the Recovery Bill â which most people know as the Stimulus Bill. In my experience, most people would rather be stimulated than in recovery.â
And even though unemployment has decreased, for elected Democrats facing re-election, âno one has a bumper sticker that says: Things Would Have Sucked Worse Without Me!â
Republicans, Frank said, âwant to demoralize our sideâ and have resorted to incivility and name-calling. âI get after-death threats â butÂ Iâm not convinced they can carry that out.â