WASHINGTON — Though Rep. Barney Frank usually cruises easily to re-election, the House Financial Services Committee chairman has unexpectedly found himself in a competitive race this year.
The Massachusetts Democrat continues to hold a sizable lead in polls, but his opponent, Republican Sean Bielat, argues that public anger over the economy, anti-incumbent fervor and Sen. Scott Brown's surprise victory this year prove he has a shot at beating Frank.
Bielat, an Ivy League-educated former Marine and consultant, said in an interview that Frank exemplifies what's wrong with Washington and that he is running to shake up the establishment and fix the economy.
"Barney Frank is my congressman, and he's one of the architects of the situation that we're in," Bielat said. "Through his work as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee and his 30 years in Congress, I would argue that he's had a pretty negative impact on things."
Bielat sees proof that Frank is vulnerable in former President Clinton's recent campaign stop on the Democrat's behalf.
"The Democrats have a lot of tight races this year, a lot of seats to defend, and Bill Clinton's time is a finite resource," Bielat said. "For the Democratic National Committee and Barney and Bill to say, 'This is a good use of my time,' that really says something."
Not surprisingly, it is not a view shared by his opponent. In an interview, Frank dismissed Bielat's claims as nonsensical.
"That is the dumbest thing I ever heard," he said in response to Bielat. "He started out by saying that I shouldn't campaign and that I was refusing to campaign. I said, 'No, look, this is a year where the economy hasn't been good and people are angry with some Democrats, so I'm going to campaign.' That is one of the ones where there is no right answer. If you don't campaign, you are arrogant, and if you do, you're somehow afraid."
Bielat sharply criticizes Frank on a range of issues, including a recent ethics investigation into Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and questions surrounding her support for Massachusetts-based OneUnited bank, in which her husband had a financial interest.
Frank urged Waters to stay away from the issue, saying that he would handle the situation.
"I don't think he did anything remotely illegal, but he certainly did something that was wrong," said Bielat. "Money was being given to institutions that were failing for reasons unrelated to the financial collapse. Special provisions were being written."
But Frank rejects any claim of wrongdoing in the case, noting that he has a long history of supporting minority-run institutions like OneUnited Bank.
"The Ethics Committee didn't even investigate me on that because there was nothing I did wrong," he said. "I think trying to keep minority-owned banks alive is a very good thing. It is the only minority-owned bank in our region."
Bielat has also tried to make the government-sponsored enterprises a campaign issue, arguing that Frank's support for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac contributed to the housing crisis.
"You can't talk about Barney Frank for more than a minute or two, and his track record, without talking about Fannie and Freddie," said Bielat. "I mean, he's been a tireless advocate for extending homeownership regardless of the ability to pay for the homes that are purchased."
Frank counters that housing is another area where his opponent is spreading untruths about his position, noting his efforts to curb subprime lending and improve underwriting standards.
For his part, Frank does not pretend to think highly of his opponent, asserting that he did not take stances on issues like abortion and hid from substance with childish attacks, including a video called the Barney Shuffle that portrays a likeness of Frank disco dancing (the video is intended to say Frank dances around the issues).
"He's been irresponsible," Frank said. "I think his attacks on the response to the crisis in 2008 have been very demagogic. … He will not take positions on anything substantively."