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The lessons of Barney Frank's graceful exit

Jonathan Hicks | 11/30/2011, 3:30 p.m.
There was something refreshingly noble about the way Rep. Barney Frank announced his decision not...
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There was something refreshingly noble about the way Rep. Barney Frank announced his decision not to seek re-election after 30 years in the House of Representatives.

Frank, an outspoken champion of civil rights and working class values, is one of the nation's most electrifying liberal voices. At the same time, he has constantly stirred hostility and antagonism from those he targeted most frequently for criticism-the Republican right and social conservatives.

In discussing his plans to leave Congress this week, Frank explained that he would be nearly 75 at the end of yet another term in Congress and that he simply had other things he wanted to do with his remaining years.

After all, he added, with congressional redistricting shifting the lines of his Fourth Congressional District in Massachusetts, he would have to introduce himself to more than 300,000 new constituents. And running in a new district would require him to raise at least $2 million, a prospect he found decidedly unappealing, he said. Moreover, he declared, he did not want to serve in Congress forever.

It is a message that too few longtime members of Congress take to heart. There are scores of men and women who hold the title of member of the House of Representatives-some right here in New York-who cling to their titles and continue to seek re-election no matter what. No matter what shifts occur to the boundaries of their districts due the redrawing of congressional lines every decade, they maintain the position that somehow they alone are the ones who can best serve the people.

A congressional seat is not a lifelong entitlement. Rather, it is an obligation to provide the best representation possible to those who elected you, and part of that responsibility is to know when to step aside and let someone else take the reins. It is a sign of strong character that Frank, who is in the upper tier of effective congressional voices, recognizes that, his passion notwithstanding, there are other voices-perhaps younger ones-who are prepared to take up the cause and lead the next generation.

We know a little about congressional longevity here in New York. Indeed, a person born the year that 81-year-old Charles B. Rangel was first elected to the House of Representatives from the New York City district that includes Harlem would by now have celebrated his or her 40th birthday. Similarly, Edolphus Towns, the 77-year-old Brooklyn Democrat, has been in office since 1983. And Jose Serrano, 68, of the Bronx, has served in Washington since 1990.

Each has had significant impact while in office, particularly Rangel. But with New York's own redistricting looming and the incumbents facing the prospect of considerable changes in the districts they have represented, it might be a sensible time for some in the old guard to make room for the new, particularly since there are plenty of well-qualified men and women who want and, frankly, deserve a shot at center stage.

As Frank hinted, there is an uncertain prospect of the Democrats regaining control of the Congress. Moreover, returning some of these incumbents to seats of congressional power after the 2012 elections is something of a long shot.

With the prospect of their most effective days-and Democratic control of the House-behind them, it might be the time for many Democratic incumbents in safe districts here and throughout the country to consider the example of Barney Frank. There is something wonderfully dignified about knowing when to make a graceful exit. It's a model many others in Congress might well consider for themselves.