Fall River, Mass.
“My name is Sean Bielat; I’m running for Congress against Barney Frank.”
That was all the Republican candidate from Brookline needed to say to get his first and loudest applause of the evening. On Friday, the 35-year-old Bielat addressed around 100 people in the South Coast town of Fall River, touching on every issue from health care reform to term limits. A Marine who served four years in active duty and has been in the reserves for eight, Bielat was calm but direct as he outlined his uphill battle to defeat Frank, the powerful 15-term congressman from Newton.
“Barney Frank hasn’t had a real opponent since 1982,” said Bielat. “There hasn’t been anybody who’s put together a serious campaign, raised the money necessary to win, and competed in a real way. We’re doing that this year.”
At first glance, the odds against a Republican in Massachusetts's Fourth Congressional District seem almost impossible. Barney Frank usually wins reelection with 70 percent or more of the vote--Obama took 63 percent of the vote in 2008, and Kerry took 65 percent in 2004.
But in the most recent election in the district the Republican won--Scott Brown beat Martha Coakley with 53.5 percent of the vote in this district last January. And a recent internal poll shows Bielat could repeat Brown's feat: the Marine was only ten points behind Frank--38 percent to 48 percent. The fact that Frank had less than half of the vote gives a challenger like Bielat an opportunity to gain from undecided voters.
“The people are looking for something different,” Bielat said. “Maybe they traditionally identified with the Democratic party. Maybe they’ve always voted that way, but now they’re saying, ‘we need a new set of answers.’”
In getting his message to voters, Bielat is massively outspent. Frank, with the benefits of committee chairmanship and seniority, has a massive war chest. Former president Bill Clinton recently stopped by the district for a campaign event. But when it comes to having an enthusiastic base, Bielat appears to have the advantage.
“Don’t worry, I’m gonna vote for you,” one woman told Bielat. “Everybody I talk to, I tell them to vote for you, get Barney Frank out.”
“What are the two most glaring weaknesses that you could attack Barney Frank on?” asked a man. “I’m sick of the guy.”
What are the most glaring weaknesses? Frank's policies on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-run mortgage lending corporations. “The economic collapse started with the end of the real estate bubble,” Bielat explained. “The real estate bubble started with the subprime mortgage [crisis]. The subprime mortgage market came to be largely because of the expansion in lending even to people who couldn’t afford their homes.”
“Barney Frank was the single biggest proponent of those policies,” he continued. “Voters can decide whether it’s an important issue or not, but I think it is.”
Michael Pereira of Fall River thinks it’s important. “We haven’t recovered from that,” he said. “I have a small piece of property in Florida we’re trying to sell. There are so many people down there now and their mortgage is so much higher than what the house is worth. This is a problem you’re going to see everywhere.” Periera hopes lots of voters will be thinking of Fannie and Freddie when they vote in November. “When they vote against Barney,” he clarified.
For a candidate running in a blue district, Bielat takes some pretty conservative positions. He’s for major reforms of Social Security, including a means test for allotting benefits, an option for individuals to place a portion of their taxes into private accounts, and an increase in the retirement age for those who are still several years from retirement.
Frank made the last two positions the issue of his open letter to Bielat last Wednesday. In it, Frank asked if his opponent “continue[s] to believe that the retirement age for receiving Social Security should be increased” and “advocate[s] full or partial privatization of Social Security.” Bielat responded with his own open letter, clarifying that he is for “gradually” raising the retirement age.
On most issues, Bielat sounds like a standard Republican. “I think the stimulus program has largely been a failure,” he said. He supports repeal of the new health care law (a position that, when he announced it at this event, received much applause) and called cap and trade “atrocious.” Bielat also opposed the financial regulation bill, the House version of which was authored by Frank. “I didn’t like the bill,” Bielat said. “It didn’t address Fannie and Freddie, and I think that’s an important omission.” His position is at odds with that of Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican who scored an upset victory in January’s special election. Brown voted for the final bill in the Senate.
Still, Bielat is more in line with his district on other positions. He says he was against the war in Iraq from the beginning, although he believes that the American military ought to finish the job. He also expressed a willingness to support increased federal spending on transportation and infrastructure, ideas undoubtedly received warmly in the old mill towns of southern Massachusetts. He supports gay marriage in Massachusetts, but opposes abortion.
The next few weeks will be crucial in determining whether or not the people of the Fourth District will elect an attractive, agreeable conservative alternative to the often divisive and confrontational liberal Frank.