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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

September 4, 2003

Barney Frank is a self-described "throwback" when it comes to balancing the calls of domesticity and the work of representing the Bay State's 4th Congressional District. "Home" to him is Washington, D.C. He keeps a one-room apartment with a box spring and mattress on the floor in Newton, but he doesn't spend much time there.

"The Republicans have turned it into a Tuesday-through-Thursday Congress," Frank said of members who rush to the airport as soon as the gavel falls. He sees himself more in the mold of former Massachusetts congressmen Tip O'Neill, Edward Boland, and Silvio Conte, who went to the nation's capital because they relished being at the epicenter of political debate.

When he is in "the district," the jagged laboratory-beaker-shaped expanse (wide on the bottom and thin at the top) that stretches south from Newton and Brookline at the neck to New Bedford at the base, he is there to work. His phone number is listed, and constituents are welcome to stop him on the street to talk about anything at all. He's there about 25 percent of the time, Frank estimates.

When he wants to relax on the weekend, he stays in Washington. He can go to a restaurant without having people approach him, and his phone number is not listed. His car is there. It is also where his boyfriend (he prefers the term to "partner" or "lover"), Sergio Pombo, is based, though they don't live together.

Frank, 63, doesn't carry a cellphone. "I don't know CPR and I can't make bail, so I'm of no use in an emergency," he said. Also, his office only recently got e-mail. Even that is calibrated to screen out messages not from his constituents. (You have to provide an address, and if the nine-digit ZIP code isn't in his district, you are out of luck.) Part of the reason is that his advocacy for gay and lesbian rights generates a lot of strong feelings.

"If I'm on TV debating a right-winger and people are upset, they can just put a cork in it," said Frank.

Besides, if his inbox were overwhelmed with vitriol, the messages he cares about from constituents might get lost.

Pombo, 39, works for the World Bank. He and Frank have been an item since they ran into each other at a gym shortly after a mutual friend introduced them in October 1998. A Colombian, his job is lending money to private companies in poor countries.

Neither one likes to cook. Other than breakfasts, they are likely to thaw their food when they are not eating out. They also would not become legally betrothed as domestic partners if Massachusetts were to embrace such a law.

"We are each professionals and we each have our own health benefits," said Frank. Also, Pombo isn't required to pay US taxes.

One reason to get hitched would be so Pombo could live in the United States if he quit his position at the World Bank. In their case, however, that is moot, because the federal government doesn't recognize civil unions and he couldn't be covered under Frank's health insurance anyway.

Frank is critical of recent attacks by President Bush on gay rights.

"Things aren't going well for him," said Frank, citing the ballooning deficit, the tanking economy, and the threat of quagmire in Iraq. "So there's a certain temptation to change the subject."

The lone book on the shelf next to Frank's Newton bed is "Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court" by Joyce Murdoch and Deb Price. In Washington, he is reading a biography of Katherine Hepburn. The music he is listening to these days is Cesaria Evora, a Cape Verdean vocal sensation.

In a corner of the bathroom is a silver-plated shovel. It was presented to Frank at a groundbreaking. He uses it for snow removal.

Before entering public life, Frank was studying for a doctorate in political science at Harvard. He dropped out because of his short attention span: "It's a handicap in academics but it's an advantage in politics," he said.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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