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Bidding Adieu To Congressional Trailblazers

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the nation's most prominent gay politician, speaks in Washington last month about his imminent retirement.
J. Scott Applewhite
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the nation's most prominent gay politician, speaks in Washington last month about his imminent retirement.

The drama over the fiscal cliff and the familiar up-against-a-deadline dysfunction of Congress have largely overshadowed the leave-taking of some Capitol Hill originals.

So we wanted to remember a few true congressional trailblazers whose long Washington careers are ending. They include the first openly gay member of Congress, a leader of the libertarian movement, the first Jewish candidate to run on a major party presidential ticket, and the most fervent supporter of a U.S. Department of Peace.

While many members of Congress are departing by choice (like GOP Tea Party godfather Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who is taking a high-paying think tank job) or by loss (like eight-term Rep. Leonard Boswell, an Iowa Democrat who lost to a fellow incumbent in a redistricting battle), these are some we won't soon forget.


Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

In his own words: "I'mused to being in a minority. I'm a left-handed gay Jew. I've never felt, automatically, a member of any majority."

At 72, Frank will wrap up more than three decades in the House, where he became not only the first openly gay member of Congress but also the first to get married to a same-sex partner.

Elected to the Massachusetts House in 1972, the irascible, irrepressible Frank co-sponsored that state's first gay-rights bill. "He was willing to speak out and be public about his sexual orientation when he was the only one," Lois Pines, who served in the state House with Frank, told us at the Democratic National Convention.

In the U.S. House, Frank was an advocate of affordable housing, a lightning rod for GOP criticism for co-writing the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation law, and survived a 1990 House reprimand for fixing a male prostitute's parking ticket.

But his legacy will most likely always be best defined by traits he saw defining him as a perpetual outsider, including and especially his sexual orientation.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas

In his own words: "There is only one kind of freedom, and that's individual liberty. Our lives come from our creator, and our liberty comes from our creator. It has nothing to do with government granting it."

Paul, a 77-year-old obstetrician who has served in the House for nearly a quarter century, has himself said he may appear in stature and tone an unlikely movement leader.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, speaks at the University of South Florida in Tampa in August.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Getty Images
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, speaks at the University of South Florida in Tampa in August.

But the Texas native is a hero to libertarians — whom he once represented on a presidential ticket — and repeat GOP presidential candidate, much to the consternation of many party regulars. Before the 2012 presidential race, Paul's fierce supporters took over GOP leadership in a handful of states and battled publicly to get his delegates seated at Mitt Romney's nominating convention.

Nicknamed "Dr. No," Paul made news in 2009 when the first of 620 measures he had sponsored in his House career finally passed. He's remained consistently anti-intervention, anti-tax, anti-Federal Reserve and pro-gold standard. Social issues, he's argued, should be decided by the states.

His financial views, opposition to the war and criticism of government intrusion on personal privacy attracted an unlikely coalition of supporters. Paul's legacy now largely lies in the hands of his son, Rand, a first-term U.S. senator from Kentucky who shares his father's views, if not his unconventional appeal.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio

In his own words: "I am running for president of the United States to enable the Goddess of Peace to encircle within her arms all the children of this country and all the children of the world."

With the departure of Kucinich, 66, whose two quixotic runs for president served as a platform for his anti-war and pro-universal health care stands, Congress will lose its biggest dove and, perhaps, its most unconventional member.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, speaks in Culver City, Calif., in June.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images for AFI
Getty Images for AFI
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, speaks in Culver City, Calif., in June.

The once-heralded youngest mayor of a major American city (Cleveland), Kucinich leaves a legacy of futile advocacy for a U.S. Department of Peace and Nonviolence, criticism of the nation's use of drones for targeted killing, and push for universal health care.

"I'm not selling insurance," he said in 2003. "I want to create a system which makes it possible for all Americans to have health care."

Kucinich, who as mayor ultimately earned the enmity of Cleveland voters when the city went into default under his leadership, is not willingly leaving the House: He lost after eight terms to fellow Democrat Marcy Kaptur in a primary after their districts were realigned.

But he'll be remembered as a critic of his own party for aligning with corporate interests, and as a peace advocate who used to some effect the language of conflict to bring attention to the poor, characterizing both poverty and unemployment as "weapons of mass destruction."


Olympia Snowe, R-Maine

In her own words: "We've miniaturized the Senate. All we're doing is debating messaging points for the next election and the next political ad. Messaging isn't doing anything to bring the country together."

At 65, and after three terms, the moderate Snowe has said she's leaving the Senate in large part because of its historic dysfunction and lack of a goal of doing "what's in the best interests of our country."

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, delivers her farewell speech to the Senate last month.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, delivers her farewell speech to the Senate last month.

A former member of the Maine state House and Senate, Snowe was sworn in to the U.S. House in 1979 and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994.

With her fellow Maine Republican, Sen. Susan Collins, Snowe has been in the middle of debates ranging from recent wars, which she supported, and Senate filibusters of judicial nominees, which she worked to block. She voted against President Obama's health care legislation, but for the Wall Street bailout and stimulus funding.

An advocate of environmental protections, Snowe has also supported legalized abortion and gay rights. Though frequently targeted by conservative Republican organizations, she remained exceedingly popular at home and won re-election in 2006 with more than 74 percent of the vote. In November, Maine voters picked independent former Gov. Angus King to replace her. He'll caucus with Senate Democrats.

Richard Lugar, R-Ind.

In his own words: "There are no shortcuts to victory. We must commit ourselves to the slow, painstaking work of foreign policy day by day and year by year."

It has been suggested that Lugar's primary loss this year to Tea Party Republican Richard Mourdock after 36 years in the Senate was proof positive that the GOP has no more room for moderates.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., last month in Washington.
Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., last month in Washington.

And though Lugar, at 80, ran a poor campaign and was criticized for being out of touch, it was, indeed, his friendship with President Obama and his even-keel statesmanship that did him in. He had won re-election in 2006 with 87 percent of the vote.

The low-key Lugar's departure leaves the Senate without one of its most experienced foreign policy hands, who leaves a decades-long legacy of reducing risks of nuclear weapons. His most notable accomplishment was his 1992 bill with then-Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, to dismantle weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union.

Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear weapons specialist at Stanford University, told us this after Lugar's loss to Mourdock (who himself lost in the general election): Lugar "leaves an incredible legacy, having realized in 1991 that we were threatened more by Russia's weakness than its strength."

Lugar, elected mayor of Indianapolis at 35, also ran briefly for president in 1996.

Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.

In his own words: "Every day Saddam remains in power with chemical weapons, biological weapons and the development of nuclear weapons, is a day of danger for the United States."

Campaigning as the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2000, Lieberman, now 70, was the proverbial happy warrior, reveling in the attention lavished on him as the first Jew on a national party presidential ticket.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, speaks on Capitol Hill last month.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Getty Images
Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, speaks on Capitol Hill last month.

The crushing way the race ended — in a divided U.S. Supreme Court — dealt the centrist Lieberman a blow from which he seemed to have difficulty recovering. His own presidential campaign fizzled four years later, and soon his hawkish stands put him at odds with his home state party. Thumped by a liberal Democratic primary challenger in 2006, Lieberman ran and won re-election as an independent. Two years later, he would endorse Republican John McCain for president and speak at his nominating convention.

But during much of his four terms in the Senate, Lieberman, a tireless advocate for Israel, also sounded the alarm on global warming, supported the rights of women and gay Americans, and helped create the Department of Homeland Security after the attacks of Sept. 11.

Lieberman's 1998 Senate floor condemnation of President Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky as "immoral" was seen as a turning point in the controversy.

Despite his tangles with Democrats, Lieberman continued to caucus with the party and supported its positions 87 percent of the time in 2010 — the same year the American Conservative Union gave him a 4 percent rating.

A year ago, in an NPR interview, Lieberman expressed little regret for decisions that infuriated Democrats — and characterized his 2006 Senate win as an independent as the "most gratifying" moment of his political career.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Rep. Barney Frank as a member of the U.S. Senate.
Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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