By Jim Schutze
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For more than an hour now, the nice Jewish doctor from New Jersey has stood before a group of 17 people in the sunlit Horizon Unitarian Universalist Church in Carrollton, explaining why he--a urologist whose sole claim to fame is a cure for female incontinence--should be the man to replace Representative Dick Armey in North Texas' 26th Congressional District. He has outlined his unique ideas for health-care reform. And his plan for grappling with the budget deficit. He's blasted Armey for his fight against raising the minimum wage and for holding his palm out to big oil companies, the country's three largest tobacco firms, the National Rifle Association, and just about every other iron-muscled political action committee in the United States. But when you get right down to the nitty-gritty of this race, for Dr. Jerry Frankel, it all hinges on one of his favorite Yiddish words: chutzpa.
"Do you know what chutzpa is?" Frankel asks the group rhetorically. "It's gall. Unmitigated gall that is just beyond comprehension. That's the word I thought of when I heard Dick Armey was in favor of abolishing the government's student loan program. The man went to college himself on student loans. And now he wants to trash the program? The gall. The absolute chutzpa of the man just...just, well, I don't know what else to do but run."
Never mind that the district is more than 60 percent Republican and has elected the powerful Armey to six consecutive terms in the House of Representatives. And it's not even worth quibbling over the fact that Armey has close to a million dollars in cash for his re-election effort, according to federal campaign financing records, while Frankel plans on spending no more than $20,000. If you or I disagreed with Armey, we'd likely write him a letter, maybe send a fax or deliver an irate phone call. But Jerry Frankel? He just figured it was time he stopped complaining about Armey's performance and took him on.
Now if Armey would only notice. But the bombastic House majority leader is more likely to pay attention to a gnat buzzing at his ear than to Frankel.
"What did you say his name is again? Jerry...uh...Frankel?" asks Jim Wilkinson, the congressman's Texas campaign manager. "I don't know him. I don't think our office has even heard of him yet." (Here's a clue at how seriously Armey is taking Frankel's threat: Wilkinson is a mere 25 years old, with barely a blink of political experience. "It's really great working on this campaign," he enthuses over the phone. "I get down to Austin a lot and get to hear some really good music.")
It certainly isn't news to Frankel that most voters don't know him. He says he's trying to get his name out in the district by knocking on doors and hosting "meet and greet" nights at senior centers, civic clubs, student unions, churches, and synagogues almost nightly and every weekend. Taking a cue from another Democratic underdog--Victor Morales--Frankel wants somehow to prove that hard work and fresh ideas still count for something in politics. And he's going to try to do it with only $20,000 of his own money and donations of $100 and less that he collects from individuals.
"I think there's a real cry out there among the voters for genuine people to run for office," Frankel says late one afternoon at his office in the Trinity Medical Center in Carrollton. "That's why there's been so much interest in Victor Morales [Republican Senator Phil Gramm's opponent] and his pickup truck. He was hardly a blip on the screen a few months ago, but he's been out working and people have come to know him. He's sincere."
His last patient of the day has just gone home, and now Frankel is settled into one of those mauve-hued waiting-room chairs that match the silk floral arrangements and soothing pastel walls. He is 53 years old, with a thatch of wiry gray hair, and is dressed in khaki twill slacks and a short-sleeved Oxford shirt--very sensible attire, right down to his dark brown walking shoes. On his shirt pocket he wears a saucer-sized "FRANKEL FOR CONGRESS" button. Frankel lets out a sigh. "I'm not taking any PAC money. And I haven't figured out how a challenger pays for a campaign like this against such a well-funded incumbent. But you can't just sit back and be cynical and let things that you disagree with go on year after year. That doesn't work."
The state Democratic Party is behind Frankel on paper, but his challenge pales in comparison to those in other hotly contested races, such as in District 24, where incumbent Martin Frost is defending against Republican Ed Harrison. "They want Frankel to win, of course," says a Party insider who asked not to be named. "But let's face it: There are much bigger races to spread the resources over."
So here's this social activist-urologist, a lone voice crying out to be noticed. It's a little painful talking with Jerry Frankel. He's like the kid in your sixth-grade class who should have been class president because he possessed the keenest ideas, the deepest intellect, and the necessary optimism to keep plugging away at problems. Not to mention he's just plain nice. But you ended up electing the class clown, who may have lacked substance, but did make you laugh. He always had a quick and easy answer, which sounded fine until you really thought about it. He was smooth, not geeky, so you voted for him anyway, and he won.
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