Congressional hopeful Jerry Frankel has ideas, brains, and GUTS.
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.
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"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.
There are all kinds of reasons why Jerry Frankel should get a shot at representing the 26th Congressional District. But of course the class clown will win--again. It'll be a cakewalk. Although Frankel won't allow you that.
"There are all kinds of things in this country we said would never happen, but they did," he says. "We put a man on the moon, and no one believed that could be done. How do you know unless you try?"
In early June, some 300 members of United Auto Workers Local 217 and 218 and their families are gathered in their Hurst union hall for a "meet the candidates" night. Also on the agenda: organizing their precincts in true grass-roots fashion and spreading the word among voters about the slate of Democratic candidates running for everything from Congress to Constable.
Outside, the parking lot is jammed, and cars have begun spilling onto the grass. Inside, a plaque proudly notes that the union hall was built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. In the meeting room, the air is hot and thick. Long cafeteria tables are lined with Bell-Textron workers dining on box-lunch sandwiches and iced tea.
The union hall is a good distance from the 26th District, which reaches, crablike, from far North Dallas to parts of Farmers Branch and Addison. It includes parts of McKinney, The Colony, and Frisco. It picks up west Plano; all of Carrollton; sections of Coppell, Flower Mound, Lewisville, and south Irving; and one lone precinct in Grapevine.
At this event, Frankel is third on the program. Speaking into a hand-held mike, he tells his audience the story he's recounted perhaps a dozen times in the last week: "My opponent and the rest of his Republican colleagues want to slash Medicare and Medicaid. He wants to turn back the clock on environmental protection. And how does this sit with all of you? He's steadfastly against raising the minimum wage. To tell someone that work is a noble thing but not to pay them a livable wage for it is inexcusable."
Frankel is preaching to the choir, of course, and the crowd loves it. They cheer and whistle and nod in solidarity. Campaign volunteers--mostly college students working for Victor Morales--are snaking through the aisles, earnestly handing out bumper stickers, brochures, and buttons.
Frankel is fortunate to have an opponent with a name that makes for great, if corny, sloganeering. He wraps up his little address with an admonition for the crowd to "vote early and often." And remember, he shouts, "I'm up against a whole Armey!"
A few feet from the stage, sitting at the front of a table, are Frankel's wife of 31 years, Rhoda, and his parents, retirees visiting from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Rhoda Frankel teaches English as a second language in Plano, where the couple lives. Frankel's parents, who spent most of their lives in the textile factory town of New Bergen, New Jersey, are watching their only child work the crowd and are mesmerized. This is their boy, the successful doctor. The good husband. The good father.
"We're very proud of him," says Florence Frankel. "He's done very well for himself, and now he wants to give something back to his country." Rhoda Frankel, a petite 52-year-old woman with hair the color of rich copper, says her husband is "doing something he feels very strongly about. It's been hectic, and it's changed our life a lot. But Jerry is very passionate about these issues, and he wants to make a difference."
A few days earlier, Frankel had laughed when discussing the way he broke the news to his wife that he wanted to run. "After knowing me my whole life, it wasn't like suddenly telling her I'm gay, or I've got a lover. I mean, we pretty much have always discussed things and don't have any secrets. But I could have knocked her over with a feather. She was that surprised."
Jokes about their longtime relationship are not mere campaign hyperbole. Jerry met Rhoda when he was in the 11th grade and she was in the 10th. "I didn't have a car in high school," he recalls. "So I used to walk a mile to her house. By the third date, I knew she was the one. She wasn't so sure. But I told her I'd wait. I could be very patient."
Rhoda says, "It took me a little longer to figure it out." The two separated when Jerry went off to college at Franklin and Marshall College, a men's liberal-arts school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Rhoda went to Rutgers University a year later. "I was really pining away for her," Jerry says. "We got real serious by my second year of college and got married two years later." They adopted two infant sons, David, now 24; and Michael, 22.
Frankel went on to MCP-Hahnemann School of Medicine in Philadelphia, graduating in 1969. He did a rotating internship during his medical training at Philadelphia General Hospital that exposed him to various specialties, including obstetrics and general surgery. "They trained me how to really listen to patients and gave me a chance to do a little of everything," Frankel remembers. "I delivered 60 babies. I scrubbed on some kidney surgeries."
It was those kidney cases that really snagged him. "What can I say? The people I worked under, they made the kidney come alive." Frankel soon became entranced with all things renal and urethral. He chose to specialize in urology and has been in private practice for 23 years. He works out of two offices--one in McKinney and one in Carrollton.
Frankel's work in the political trenches is minimal--save for his support for the human-rights group Amnesty International and his membership in a national group called Physicians for National Health. Any notoriety he's enjoyed has come largely through his profession. A few years ago, Frankel pioneered a technique to relieve female incontinence. He and his partner, Dr. John Fairbanks, use video-assisted laparoscopy to repair the bladder neck. The procedure is less invasive than open surgery, and recovery time is much shorter, Frankel says.
His experience in trying to sell the procedure to his colleagues has the familiar ring of the way Frankel now sells himself to voters. "We'd submit papers to professional journals, and they'd just come back to us. We weren't a big medical center; we were two doctors and a nurse in a community hospital. Nobody was paying any attention to us."
Still, he kept at it. Eventually, the American College of Surgeons sent a team to videotape the surgery, which led to the procedure gaining recognition from the rest of the group and also the American Urology Association.
Even George magazine, the gossipy political journal published by John F. Kennedy Jr., eventually got into the act. In its June-July issue, George plugged Frankel's bladder-mending prowess in a short feature spotlighting vastly underfunded, underdog challengers to powerful incumbents. Frankel found it wildly amusing.
"Hey," he says. "I'll take publicity wherever I can get it."
Frankel sounds a lot like every other candidate on the stump when he talks about education. It's an investment in our country, he says; it's the backbone of my candidacy. But one thing sets him apart. When Frankel mentions education, his voice thickens a bit, and his eyes get a little misty. Then he launches into his own scrappy story of how he funded his college education.
He remembers that very few friends in his working-class neighborhood finished high school, much less went on to college. "I was a top student in high school," he says. "I worked 20 hours a week from the time I was in ninth grade. I got academic scholarships. But I was the son of a clothing salesman. And there's no way on God's earth I could have gone to college--much less medical school--without student loans from the government.
"Countless numbers of people have benefited from student loans, including a bunch of elected officials," he continues. "And now there are all these Republicans, including Dick Armey, who want to seriously cut the program in order to balance the budget. So what are they saying now--with their nice incomes and successful careers--to the young people who hope to go to college? The country did it for us. Thank you for the opportunity, but now the door is closed? Sorry, I can't buy that."
(Armey himself attended Jamestown College, a small Bible school in his native North Dakota, and did graduate studies at the universities of North Dakota and Oklahoma, all with the help of guaranteed student loans. He went on to become chairman of the economics department at North Texas State University, now the University of North Texas, and made his first victorious run for Congress in 1984.)
Armey's campaign manager, Jim Wilkinson, says the congressman has been mistakenly set up as the bad guy in the student loan discussion. "Once again, the liberals are going to say we're for cutting out student loans," he says. "Not true. We just don't think the federal government should be a lender. The liberals want the Department of Education to run the program and dole out the money. We think it should go straight to the banks, and they can make the loans. All the government has given us is burdensome regulation and minority set-asides."
Frankel fumes at the characterization. The government should manage the loan program because it more than recoups its initial investment, he says. He cites a report generated by Massachusetts Institute of Technology to prove his "education as investment" theory. Over a 10-year period, MIT receives an average of $250 million from the federal government in research and development grants, and in tuition payments through federal student loans. The country gets paid back, MIT says, by reaping $15 billion a year in university-generated new technology and 150,000 new jobs.
Like every other congressional candidate, Frankel has been tinkering with his own plan for balancing the budget. He opposes the Republican plan to balance the budget in seven years with tax cuts made in the first two years. He believes the work could be done in four years with greater cuts in defense spending and--this is the hard part for car-loving Texans--a hike in the federal gasoline tax.
"Look," Frankel says, rolling his eyes, "no one who really looks at this problem believes the budget will balance in seven years with these first two years of tax cuts. It's absurd. We can do it in four years in the same way you'd have to cut your own budget at home, by cutting a quarter each year.
"It would take a serious bipartisan approach," he adds, "where people of goodwill from both parties agree that certain programs will not be cut or underfunded. Not Medicare and Medicaid. Not education. And I know it can't be done in four years simply by budget cuts alone without causing a tremendous amount of pain to the most powerless citizens. So you raise the gasoline tax 5 to 10 cents a year or every other year. No one wants to hear that, but I think it's the fairest way to go."
Eventually, Frankel reasons, the government would run a surplus. His proposed reward for such careful budgeting? For every dollar of surplus, give a dollar of tax cuts. "It's a carrot-stick approach," he says. "You don't reward people at the beginning by cutting their taxes. You can't tell someone to lose 100 pounds and give them a bagful of candy at the start of the diet."
Dick Armey, of course, would plan the patient's diet much differently. For one thing, if he had his way, there wouldn't be a minimum wage at all. Nevertheless, a bill to raise the wage to $5.25 an hour passed the House earlier this summer and received bipartisan support, with 92 House Republicans voting with Democrats to raise it. The bill is now in a Senate conference committee, awaiting action.
Paul Morrell, Armey's Washington, D.C., spokesman, says his boss firmly believes any minimum wage is a "hurtful policy," and "leads to layoffs of the most vulnerable citizens."
Morrell amplifies the point about the minimum wage in the best Armey tradition--with an oft-repeated, hyperbolic tale that has no doubt by now become business management folklore. "There was a restaurant chain in the '70s that was doing very well," Morrell says. "When Congress voted one of its increases in the minimum wage, the chain, in order to maintain its abilities to serve the public, resorted to laying off two employees per shift all across the country. They had to make up for the loss by creating salad bars."
And you thought the build-your-own salad concept was simply one of those silly restaurant trends sweeping the country 20 years ago.
Morrell says he cannot name the belt-tightening restaurant chain. "I don't remember. It came up in a debate a couple of months ago."
Frankel, meanwhile, counters such anecdotes with his own examples of companies that have prospered by paying their workers well: Southwest Airlines, he says; Motorola, he says, which decided to pay its work force decent wages and benefits and has captured 40 percent of the Japanese market for pagers with its U.S.-made products. "They invested in their employees, and they get hard work and loyalty in return," Frankel says.
Frankel says he'll dissect the minimum-wage issue with Armey if the incumbent will agree to debate him this fall. He plans to challenge Armey to a series of debates once the campaign season gets rolling in earnest after Labor Day. If the heavily favored congressman--who certainly has nothing to gain by meeting Frankel head-on--agrees to a debate, the hottest topic between the two candidates may well be health-care reform.
There are few physicians who would offer an argument against overhauling the health-care system--but few have approached it with Frankel's zeal, especially when their own pocketbooks might be affected. According to financial disclosure documents required by the Federal Elections Commission, Frankel earned nearly $184,000 from his medical practice in 1995, and nearly $166,000 from January through April 1996. Any drastic changes in health-care delivery could certainly hit him in the wallet, but, he says, the system is so weak right now it could hardly get worse.
With the disastrous health-care reform charge led by President and first lady Hillary Clinton two years ago, it seems the public would have had a bellyful of the subject by now. But Frankel says the current managed-care system is seriously broken and needs fixing. He hears it from his patients all the time.
He decided during medical school that access to health care in the United States should be a right, not a privilege. That belief alone sets Frankel apart from his opponent, most Republicans, and some Democrats as well. For several years, Frankel has been a member of Physicians for National Health, a Chicago-based organization of doctors who believe in federally funded health care. The group numbers about 8,000--a tiny fraction of the some 650,000 physicians in the United States. Frankel and Dr. Ron Anderson, president and CEO of Parkland Memorial Hospital, are founders of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the organization, which has about 25 members in the two cities.
Frankel favors universal health care, and has christened his plan with a name fit for a medical marketing company: "Americare."
The plan would be tax-supported, probably through a value-added tax, and would guarantee everyone access to a physician. Comparisons to Canada's socialized health-care system, which politicians have run from like the Ebola virus, immediately spring to mind. But Frankel would require more out-of-pocket support from Americans than the Canadian plan requires--a $10 copayment for doctor's-office visits and prescription drugs that every patient would pay, regardless of income. People who wanted to keep their own doctor could finance their own coverage through private insurers, but make no mistake--they would still pay into a system that covers everyone.
A 12-member bipartisan board, representing 12 regions of the country, would be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate to administer the plan. Administrative costs, Frankel says, would be fixed at 7.5 percent--a whopping cut in the 30- to 40-percent costs private insurers now average to administer HMO and other medical plans.
"Of course, the greatest argument I get against my plan is it's still a government-run health-care plan, and you can't trust the government to do it right," Frankel says. "But our current system has proven you can't tie health insurance to employment. With the bumps in our economy, and as more companies cut back, people aren't getting coverage. They can't afford private insurance with deductibles of $100 or more. And you've got 44 million Americans with absolutely no health care. How could it get worse?"
Parkland's Anderson, whose hospital deals daily with the uninsured, has increased the volume of his pitch for national health care "as politicians have continued to just leave the poor and the unemployed out of the discussion."
Frankel, Anderson says, "has the courage to talk about the system now, when a lot of people just want to avoid it. That's integrity. Jerry knows it isn't right that the uninsured are just completely off the radar screen, and he's going to keep talking about it."
Frankel may well keep talking, but he's clearly doing it for free. Armey, on the other hand, has been well-rewarded for his recalcitrance against major health-care reform. His list of contributions from health-care and insurance PACs during just the past year totals more than $27,000. Donors include the American Hospital Association; insurers Cigna, Metropolitan Life, and Aetna Life & Casualty; and pharmaceutical giant Glaxo. Other top donors: the big-league oil firms, including Texaco, Shell, Amoco, and Arco, and tobacco companies RJR/Nabisco, Philip Morris, and Brown & Williamson. The National Rifle Association PAC gave $2,000 last August. (Armey has repeatedly called for rescinding the 1994 anti-crime legislation that outlawed assault weapons.)
"Those PACs aren't buying access to Dick Armey," Frankel says. "They're buying his soul."
Armey's people fire back with what has become the standard incumbents' defense for scooping up special-interest money. "Every single PAC contribution is a result of hard-working employees' smaller donations," says campaign manager Wilkinson.
Parkland's Anderson gave his "smaller donation" to his favored candidate as well. But the notion that he could ever buy access to Jerry Frankel as congressman makes him chuckle. What can you buy--he asks--for a hundred bucks
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