Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, a gay pioneer in Congress and a Massachusetts liberal whose name as well and fingerprints are on last year's sweeping bill regulating Wall Street, announced plans Monday to retire at the end of his current term, his 16th in Congress.
"There are other things I would like to do with my life," the 71-year-old lawmaker said at a news conference. He added that his retirement plans were hastened by two years by reapportionment, which moved 325,000 new constituents into his district.
Frank's career has traced an arc from early promise to near career-wrecking scandal to legislative triumph, accompanied by a quick-witted intelligence and an often partisan and frequently acerbic speaking style.
Unusual for a politician, his appearance is routinely less-than impeccable, and he once distributed posters as a candidate for the Massachusetts Legislature that said "Neatness isn't everything. Re-elect Barney."
In Congress, Frank has fought for years to hold down what he viewed as excessive military spending, and said one of his objectives for his final year in office is to make sure the Pentagon shares in any deficit-cutting measures that take place.
Frank is the 17th Democrat to announce he will not seek re-election in 2012, when Democrats face an uphill battle to gain the 25 seats they need to win a majority. By contrast, six Republicans are retiring.
In a written statement, President Barack Obama hailed Frank's "passion and his quick wit." He praised his work to expand affordable housing, end discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals and enact "the most sweeping financial reform in history, designed to protect consumers and prevent the kind of excessive risk-taking that led to the financial crisis from ever happening again."
At his news conference, Frank said he intends to remain active on issues he is concerned about, pledging to defend the year-old Dodd-Frank financial regulatory bill that many Republicans want to repeal. "I think I will find my motives less impugned and I will be able to talk more about the merits" once he is no longer a member of Congress, he said.
It was an earlier redistricting that presented Frank with his toughest challenge at the polls in a career counted in decades. He won his seat in 1980, then two years later was thrown into a race with a formidable Republican incumbent, Rep. Margaret Heckler. He outpolled her with 60 percent of the vote and his seat has been secure since.
Yet his career nearly ran aground because of his personal life.
Two years after a voluntary 1987 disclosure that he is gay, Frank had to explain why he had hired as a personal aide a convicted drug user and male prostitute, Steve Gobie, who was also living in the lawmaker's apartment. He said he always paid the aide out of personal funds, but the House ethics committee recommended Frank be censured for using his congressional status on behalf of the man, including seeking dismissal of 33 parking tickets.
"I should have known better. I do now, but it's a little too late," a contrite Frank told the House.
Some Republicans sought a harsher punishment, including expulsion, but majority Democrats blocked the move, and Frank resumed a career that far outlasted many of those who had sought his ouster.
Over the decades, Frank was a prominent supporter of several gay-rights issues, including a bill to allow same-sex partners of federal employees the same benefits as spouses, and attempts to end the military's policy of "don't ask, don't tell."
When Republicans sought passage of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2006, he said, "I think this is motivated, frankly, by a dislike of those of us who are gay and lesbian," and he objected to "people taking batting practice with my life."
Yet he also had a clear-eyed view of what was politically possible.
In 2004, he said San Francisco's decision to challenge state law and grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples could damage efforts by gay rights advocates in Massachusetts to legalize gay marriage through the courts. "When you're in a real struggle, San Francisco making a symbolic point becomes a diversion," he said, expressing concern that an image of lawlessness and civil disobedience in one city would hurt efforts elsewhere.
As a longtime member of the House committee that oversaw the banking and housing industries, he often worked to expand affordable housing and end redlining, a practice in which banks are accused of imposing onerous lending conditions on residents of inner cities and other poor neighborhoods.
As chairman in 2008, he was a lead Democrat in drafting $700 billion legislation that President George W. Bush supported to bail out financial institutions.
A year later, with Obama in the White House, he turned his attention to a far-reaching bill to overhaul regulations covering the banking and financial industries. The measure passed the House in December of 2009 without a single Republican vote, and it wasn't until July 2010 that the Senate approved its version of the bill and a 1,300-page compromise was pushed through both houses and signed by the president.
"I, along with many others, did not see the crisis coming" that ultimately brought the economy to its knees, he said at his retirement news conference.
At the same news conference, he acknowledged making an error nearly two decades ago when President George H. W. Bush sought backing for U.S. troops to help push Iraqi forces out of oil-rich Kuwait. "I voted against Bush the first's request to go into Iraq and that was because I thought he'd do what his son did, which is screw it up," he said.
Eds: Espo reported from Washington, D.C.; AP reporter Seth Borenstein contributed to this story.