Farewell, Frank Wolf

Cliff Smith Attorney
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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.

Like one of his heroes, the late Senator Scoop Jackson, Wolf has no blinders on when it comes to human rights and understands the ideology behind oppressive regimes is important to their behavior. He was and is an unrelenting critic of communism and the false promises of socialism to lift people out of poverty. He also has not ignored what makes freedom possible. Wolf has championed religious freedom, at home and abroad, and stressed the importance of the role of religion in society at large. He is unapologetically pro-life, both at home and abroad, receiving a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life as well as being one of the fiercest critics of China’s one-child policy which leads to forced abortion.

The latter series of facts suggests something odd about Wolf’s reputation as a moderate. In a time where many in the media and the consulting class say that what one really needs to do is to drop “controversial” social issues, Wolf is an enthusiastic backer of the Manhattan Declaration, a multi-denominational statement of faith and politics that affirms pro-life, pro-marriage and other socially conservative positions. His social conservatism is what drives his concern for human rights, and also has caused him to be a fierce critic of legalized gambling.

On fiscal matters, it’s true he’s been skeptical of Americans for Tax Reform’s no new taxes pledge, and he’s been very willing to spend federal dollars into transportation, the original issue he ran on 34 years ago. Yet he’s voted for most tax cuts and supported lower spending and entitlement reform. He’s also been one of the Obama administration’s fiercest critics on the supposedly “phony scandal” of Benghazi and has recently accused the administration of wanting a government shutdown. In truth, Wolf’s conservatism is deep and consistent. His reputation as a moderate is based on the fact that he has no desire to engage in the kinds of partisan squabbling that passes for debate these days, and, like Reagan, he doesn’t care who gets the credit for positive change.

There are some people who are very good politicians, others that are very good men. But few are both. Congressman Wolf is both. He is respected by both sides of the aisle, and can work with everyone, not because his positions always please them, but because he is a man of integrity who is interested in solving real problems, not feathering his own nest. Fellow Congressman, and voters, respond to this.

Wolf’s former aide, the very impressive Delegate Barbara Comstock, is an early favorite to replace him. But whoever replaces him, I hope he’s rubbed off on them. The nation would be far better off with more like him.

Godspeed sir. And thanks for your service.