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A 'Frank' Lesson in American (Minority) Politics

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Last week, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) officially stepped down as senator of Massachusetts, after serving since 1985. Having been confirmed by the Senate as the next secretary of state, and having given his farewell address to Congress' elite legislative body, he left on Friday -- and William "Mo" Cowan replaced him.

Appointed by Gov. Patrick, Cowan, who is also black, was once Patrick's chief of staff and one of the many examples of black appointees by the Patrick administration to key positions.

For many, Cowan's appointment was a surprise, as the media speculated an elder (white) statesman would be appointed in an interim capacity until a special election now scheduled for late June.

With several popular Democratic candidates jockeying for position and an opportunity for new leadership nominated by the state Republican Party - the race is sure to be one to watch.

But, what's more interesting (for now, at least) is the negative tenor of former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank after learning of Patrick's choice to appoint Cowan and not him.

Speaking to the Washington Blade, Frank, who is openly gay and married, attempts to drive a wedge between two marginalized groups -- blacks and gays:

"But let me tell you, there was one thing that sort of troubled me in the discussion about it -- nobody was particularly quoted; they attributed something to governor's office and others -- was that the governor would want to appoint someone who's either a minority or a woman. And what troubled me is the question of LGBT people was just kind of swept out. I've never asked for any appointment based on me being gay, but when they begin talk about the importance of diversity and leave us out, that troubles me."

Frank's comments are what's troubling and are disconcerting because they suggest a lack of commitment to LGBT issues by Gov. Patrick, which Frank knows is not true -- and just about anyone paying little to no attention to the Bay State's governor since his initial election in 2006 can figure out.

Yet, for Frank, his not being selected was an opportunity to crudely and egregiously attempt to drive a political wedge between black and LGBT communities when it comes to politics. His brief comment (which can be added to list of controversial comments in the past) calls into question his own commitment to diversity -- not Gov. Patrick's. Patrick's commitment is not just limited to race or LGBT issues. Rather, Patrick has embraced diversity in the broadest sense since being elected governor and well before -- going back to at least his appointment by President Clinton as the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights division.

Meanwhile, Frank, a champion of LGBT rights, while powerful and historic in his own deserving right, chose to limit his impact in terms of diversity to single-issue politics. There's nothing wrong with that at all. In fact, it has resulted in huge, historic accomplishments for him and the country on the path to LGBT equality.

However, what's deeply concerning about Frank's choice of words (and still no apology) is that he seems to prioritize one marginalized group's advancement over another, as if diversity in American politics is a zero sum game.

Frank went so far so as to suggest his non-selection was as if Gov. Patrick didn't listen to President Obama's reelection inaugural address, where the president referenced, in powerful imagery, the struggle for civil rights -- as the road "through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall."

Frank's suggestion that Gov. Patrick did not listen to President Obama's inaugural is classic haterism. For Frank, by not choosing to evidence Obama's rhetoric on LGBT civil rights by appointing him as interim senator, Patrick does not support LGBT issues.

This suggestion is not only poor, but dangerous for the advancement of rights for all minority groups (and women) yet seeking to break into the white, good ol' boys, heterosexual club of American politics.

If Americans begin (or in Frank's case, continue) to think of descriptive and substantive representation of minority interests in American politics as a mathematical equation, rather than a continual effort endemic to realizing the promise of American democracy, we, as a country, will likely never see the day Jefferson's words will ring true -- and that "all (wo)men are created equal." To limit the quest for a more inclusive and descriptively representative body in Congress to a bean counting of markers of diversity between minority groups is to create discord and engender tension where there need be none.

Frank's words are problematic and if allowed to persist, will further create a serious weakening of the equality agenda. As Hannah Pitkin has said, "When the representative is likened to a descriptive representation or a symbol, he is usually seen as an inanimate object and not in terms of any activity." Hence, to diminish the substantive representative abilities of a William "Mo" Cowan (appointed by a black governor who has championed LGBT rights) to a question of LGBT issues being "swept out" is irresponsible.

Frank is right to continue to press for more members of the LGBT community in Congress. And as President John Adams argued long ago: "[a representative legislature] should be an exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large, as it should think, feel, reason, and act like them." However, when greater LGBT representation is characterized as more important than other types of minority representation, therein lies the problem.

Frankly (pun intended), greater diversity of all kinds is yet needed in Congress.