In the News

Rep. Lois Frankel: From “Majoring in Protest” to the US House

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Washington, DC, April 6, 2015 | Susan Seligson | comments

In “dysfunctional” times, alum remains optimistic about democracy

In West Palm Beach, they still call her the mayor.

But the earthy, plainspoken Lois Frankel, a familiar face on the art deco boulevards of the city she governed for eight years, is in the big leagues now. She is serving her second term as the US representative from Florida’s 22nd congressional district. It is the most visible–and arguably the most influential–position Frankel (CAS’70) has held in a distinguished public service career spanning more than three decades.

In 1986, she won the first of seven terms in the Florida House of Representatives. She went on to become the first woman minority leader in Florida history, in 1995. As mayor of West Palm Beach from 2003 to 2011, Frankel led efforts to expand the local marine industry and oversaw the revitalization of the city’s downtown district. A year after leaving the mayor’s office, she was elected to Congress, representing the newly redrawn 22nd district, defeating Republican Adam Hasner by a 10 percent edge. She replaced US Representative Allen West, a hawkish anti-Obama Republican, former Army lieutenant colonel, and Tea Party favorite.

“Lois is one of those rare members of Congress who is exactly who she is no matter where she is or who she’s with, whether it’s with a head of state, the president of the United States, or a constituent,” says congressional colleague Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.). “She takes her job very seriously, but never herself.”

An unapologetic liberal, Frankel has channeled her youthful left-wing zeal into a career as a tireless advocate for women, children, military veterans, and people with AIDS.

She first became interested in politics as an undergraduate at BU, where she majored in psychology, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. Frankel became active in student government. An outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, she jokes that she “majored in protests” while a BU student.

Early career: advocating for women, prisoners, people with AIDS

After graduating from Georgetown University Law Center in 1973, Frankel moved to West Palm Beach, lending her energy and legal know-how to a number of activist reform movements. She established a West Palm Beach chapter of the National Organization for Women, worked as an assistant public defender, and advocated for women, prisoners, and people with AIDS. In her early years as a state legislator in the 1980s, Frankel recalls, “nobody really knew much about this new disease, and I kept saying we need to look into this. The health care committee chairman finally said all right, and I ended up writing one of the first AIDS bills in the country.”

She says her days as a young activist at BU taught her to question the establishment, and that has served her well, even though she chose to join and embrace that establishment. “I told myself I want to try to get into a position where I’m not protesting my government, where I’m part of the government and in a position to change it.”

As a US representative, Frankel has found her niche. She serves on the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation and its Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. She is also vice chair of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues.

The rhythms of her life in hotfooting it across Capitol Hill for floor votes, welcoming constituents of every stripe, joining a congressional delegation on a trip to Afghanistan–suit her high energy level and her penchant for kibitzing. Frankel is the first woman to represent the 22nd district, which stretches from Riviera Beach in Palm Beach County to Fort Lauderdale and Plantation in Broward County.

As she marches through the basement tunnel connecting the Longworth House Office Building and the Capitol after being summoned by bell to the House floor for a vote she is likely to lose, she muses about how, compared with being mayor, serving as a US representative is a cakewalk. “Being the mayor was 24-hour intense,” she says. “You are never off; you’re dealing with traffic and sewers and water and hurricanes and economic development and parks and recreation. There’s a lot of personnel issues–police, fire, all of that. When I stopped being mayor my hair stopped turning gray.” An amateur artist, she compares being mayor to making art. “You look at the city as a sort of canvas,” she says.

A gift for reaching across party lines

If being a mayor is like painting, then being a congresswoman is like running defense in pro football. You charge into the fray, you get knocked down, you pick yourself up, and you smarten up with each new bruise. And Frankel has become a fan of the political gridiron, even if it is sometimes lacking in team spirit. “One thing that’s so satisfying is seeing people who have been here 25 years who still have a zest,” she says. “When you lose that feeling that you can make a difference, then you should just move over and let someone else do the job.”

Asked what it’s like to be part of a Congress that is frequently described as bitterly polarized, Frankel declares herself an optimist. “I don’t feel frustrated,” she says, taking a brief break on a couch in her congressional office, its walls adorned with her naïve abstract paintings. Near her desk is a framed photograph of a young girl killed in the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. “I promised her mother I’d leave the photo there until we pass gun control,” she says.

That Connecticut parent is likely to have a long wait, as Frankel’s causes often succumb to the intransigence of the Republican majority. “If the process frustrates you, you shouldn’t be here,” she says, conceding that while Congress can be dysfunctional when it comes to the legislative process, she continues to believe deeply in its mission. “This takes people with determination, persistence, and hope. I don’t think you should go into politics if you are in despair about everything.”

“As one of Lois’ dear friends, I’ve had the privilege of seeing firsthand the dedication, commitment, and keen effectiveness she has demonstrated over the years fighting for the needs of her constituents,” says US Representative Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.). Kuster has a great respect for Frankel’s “rare ability to work across party lines in order to deliver results.”

That ability has earned Frankel plaudits. In winter 2013, her hometown newspaper of record, the Sun-Sentinel cited her political savvy in bonding with some of the most strident conservatives in Congress. One of them, Representative Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), infamously cried, “You lie!” to President Barack Obama during a State of the Union Address. Frankel has also turned political heads by working alongside people like former Minnesota Republican congresswoman and prominent Tea Party member Michele Bachmann and Representative Steve King (R-Iowa), an outspoken social and political conservative. “When you have dinner together and fly together,” says Frankel, whose bipartisan outings have included a congressional visit to Afghanistan, “you realize they are very personable, nice people to deal with. It’s just that our political philosophies are so different.”

Frankel’s congressional colleague Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) calls Frankel’s tenacity “unrivaled and her humor contagious” and admires her ability to develop relationships on both sides of the aisle. “I am very proud to have such an amazing force of nature on my side,” says Brownley, who became fast friends with Frankel after both were sworn in as freshmen in 2013.

Frankel’s unwavering support for women’s reproductive rights, stricter gun control measures, and tax cuts for middle-class families frequently puts her at political odds with her Republican colleagues and has earned occasional criticism (the Sun-Sentinel once called her “a provocateur for the extreme left”). But her willingness to transcend deep philosophical rifts has borne fruit, particularly in the case of a bill to fund a major US Army Corps of Engineers project to deepen and widen channels to allow increased commercial shipping in Port Everglades.

After some tweaking, the bill, a boon to Broward County in particular and the state of Florida overall, was passed by the Senate as well as the House, and Frankel was named to the conference committee. In early March, the Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works Review Board voted unanimously to send an approval of the expansion to state review, the bill’s final hurdle. At the five-hour hearing, Frankel had called on the Corps to swiftly approve the port’s expansion, which is needed for the port to remain competitive as larger and heavier-loaded freight ships travel the waterways. Port Everglades is Florida’s main seaport and prime off-loading port for petroleum and jet fuel, employing more than 202,000 workers in Frankel’s district and beyond, and its commerce totals $27 billion annually.

It is expected that the expansion, the largest feather in Frankel’s congressional cap to date, will create as many as 7,000 new direct jobs and an additional 135,000 indirect jobs, resulting in more than $31 million each year in direct economic benefits. Port Everglades depends on being able to keep up with Florida’s growing population, larger ships, and competition from international and domestic ports that are expanding and modernizing their infrastructure, Frankel says.

Supporting America’s soldiers

Frankel has also earned a reputation as one of Congress’ strongest advocates for America’s soldiers and veterans. In mid March, she reintroduced the Veterans Education Empowerment Act, along with colleagues Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.). The legislation would allow the Department of Education to create veteran student centers, which would assist veterans as they transition to college.

Her support of the American military and their families comes from personal experience. Her son, Ben Lubin, a retired Marine Corps captain and former artillery officer, who now runs a wine bar in West Palm Beach, served tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Frankel says that like any parent, she was anxious the whole time he was deployed and that being a soldier’s mother has both softened and lent nuance to her former knee-jerk antiwar stance and made her a champion of soldiers’ rights, if not of the policies that put them in harm’s way.

“Lois has demonstrated a clear willingness to put aside party politics in order to stand up for our nation’s military servicemen, servicewomen, and veterans,” says Kuster.

“You do see things from a different point of view when you’ve had a child who’s served in the military,” Frankel says. “I have a much greater respect for the military, a bigger admiration for those who serve.”

Now 67, Frankel grew up consumed with sports in the prosperous Long Island suburb of Great Neck. “I was an athlete and a tomboy,” she says. “If I were growing up now, I wouldn’t be considered one, but back then girls playing sports was unusual, and I played every kind–stickball, football, and soccer in the street. I played tennis and golf, and in high school I was on the softball and basketball teams.”

These days Frankel, who is divorced, spends much of her free time painting. It’s a passion, she frankly admits, born of doodling, and one that flourished years ago when she worked for a judge, and later when she sat on interminable committee meetings as a state legislator. “I’ve always been a doodler, and one of the ways I concentrate is by doodling,” she says. “So I had maybe 100 doodles a day, and one day a friend of mine bought me a canvas and paintbrushes for Hanukkah.” Those doodles became the canvases that now hang on her office walls, and Frankel often gives smaller drawings as gifts. Reminiscent of tribal masks, they gaze from backgrounds patterned with blazing primary colors. “That’s how I think,” she says. “I like bright colors.”

Elected to a second term last November after a close race against Republican Paul Spain, Frankel is finding her voice on the House floor and feeling as if the forces in her life are finally aligned. “I’ve made a zillion mistakes in my life,” she says. “Everyone does. If there was a misstep in my career it was my first attempt to run for Congress in 1992.” (She lost to former US District Court Judge Alcee Hastings in a runoff election.) “But it turned out to be a good thing ultimately, because I went on to have a very satisfactory career in public service.”

A veteran of her share of bruising campaigns (she entered and dropped out of the 2002 Florida gubernatorial race in which she tried to unseat Jeb Bush), Frankel has a piece of advice for young men and women contemplating a career in politics: “If you can’t take a joke,” she says “don’t go into politics. Not everyone in politics has a sense of humor, but it’s a good thing to have.”


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