Congressman Frank Wolf, one of the last of the “Reagan babies” — congressman first elected in the 1980 Reagan landslide — has announced that he will retire at the end of his current term. For the first time in 34 years, Congress will be without a man that is one of those rare figures who is widely respected, effective and personable, principled and pragmatic.
Wolf’s rise to power is unusual. The son of a Philadelphia police officer, he struggled with responsibility, starting out his life as a law school dropout, working in construction. He was worried about being a major disappointment to his in-laws, who thought their daughter Carolyn had married an aspiring lawyer. He later finished law school, and worked for Pennsylvania Congressman Edward Biester, and then for the Department of the Interior. He then had two losing campaigns for Congress in 1976 and 1978 before winning on Reagan’s coattails in 1980. He’s been winning ever since.
The media coverage of Wolf’s time in Congress so far is largely based on one or two narratives about Wolf; one, that he is a crusader for human rights, two, that he is a pragmatic moderate bipartisan dealmaker from the “good old days.” The first is absolutely true, while the second has truth to it but is misleading. In reality, the issues are related. Wolf is a man of sincere and deeply held Christian faith who simply wants to do good work with integrity. That drives his concern for human rights, and explains a lot about his ability to work with anyone.
Wolf’s record on human rights is beyond dispute. In 1984, Wolf, who had spent most of his time and energy up to this point on transportation issues, took the unusual step of traveling to Ethiopia during one of the worst famines in modern history with his friend, then Democratic Rep. Tony Hall of Ohio. He was horrified by what he saw, people dying everywhere of malnutrition and a devastated landscape. He left a changed man, and has been deeply involved in human rights issues ever since.
Since then, he’s visited political prisoners behind the Iron Curtain, literally snuck into Tibet against the explicit wishes of the State Department to expose the human rights abuses of China, and been deeply involved in the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Sudan, to name just a few.
It’s especially rare for congressmen in swing districts to champion such issues, and Wolf has rarely sought the spotlight, let alone partisan gain, for his work, although he’s always sought a spotlight for his causes. In fact, it’s part of the reason he’s so involved. Wolf knows that even when human rights issues seem intractable, bad actors tend to back off when the spotlight is on them: prisoners get more food, minorities get abused less, and so on. Yet in spite of his humility, his work has connected with his constituents. He hasn’t had a tough race in decades.