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Frank-Heckler 1982 Race Was One for the Ages

The 1982 election cycle was the last time Massachusetts lost a seat in reapportionment without a Member retiring, and Rep. Barney Frank found himself in terrible political trouble.

Not only was the Democrat the most junior of the Bay State delegation at the time, he had also antagonized the people who had huge influence over drawing the lines. He had fought with then-state Senate President William Bulger (D) and had crossed then-Gov. Edward King (D) by supporting his primary opponent.

He was drawn together with then-Rep. Margaret Heckler, a moderate Republican and the most senior woman in Congress. As a freshman running against an eight-term incumbent, Frank faced an uphill battle.

“I knew I was going to be a target. I didn’t know they were going to do it to me as badly as they did,” he told Roll Call last week.

Off the top of his head, Frank still remembered the proportions of the new district that he was drawn into: 70 percent of voters were from Heckler’s old district, 24 percent were from his old district and 6 percent were new to both Members. Of the 20 communities in Frank’s old district, only two were drawn into the new seat, according to contemporaneous press accounts.

How did he turn the tide? He worked hard to connect Heckler to votes she took for President Ronald Reagan’s agenda.

“Heckler voting for the Reagan stuff … alienated the moderate and liberal base she had among the elderly and the unions and the community activists,” Frank recalled.

He also noted the fact that the country was in the grip of a recession helped his cause. “Finally, she did not run a good campaign, and when she fell a little bit behind, she got very nasty and ran a very angry, negative campaign and paid a price for that.”

In the end, Frank won comfortably, beating Heckler by 20 points. But it came at a great monetary cost. The Frank-Heckler race was the most expensive House contest in the history of the country at that time.

After Heckler’s defeat, no woman represented the Bay State for a quarter-century — until Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) was elected in a 2007 special election. And while three Republican Congressmen were, at various times, part of the state’s delegation after Heckler lost, no Republican has represented Massachusetts in the House since January 1997.

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