The Marine Who Has Barney Frank Worried
In a district where Scott Brown won, Sean Bielat mounts a serious challenge.

The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, October 9, 2010

FALL RIVER, Mass.--"I don't consider myself a tea party candidate," Sean Bielat tells me over dinner. "I don't know what it means." But an hour later Mr. Bielat, Rep. Barney Frank's Republican challenger, receives a hero's welcome at the Spindle City Tea Party, a gathering of nearly 200 citizen-activists in this economically depressed mill town. As he approaches the stage, they stand, applauding and chanting "Go, Sean, go!"

What he tells them is consistent with this reporter's view of the tea party: "I'm starting to think that people want to take this country back--that people no longer believe that the government has the answers for our betterment, that the government can tell them how they should use their money. People believe that they have the power to create their own opportunity, if only they are given the chance. . . . There is so much wrong in Washington, I almost don't know where to start."

Mr. Bielat holds some views that this crowd would find uncongenial. For one, he favors raising the "cap" on wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax--a glaring exception to his opposition to tax hikes. Another comes up during the tea party event, when a portly man with a white beard asks him: "Will you introduce legislation creating term limits in the federal government?"

The crowd applauds the question, and Mr. Bielat tries to duck it. He points out that the event isn't supposed to be a Q&A and offers to speak with the man one-on-one later. "I think people are interested to know," the man persists, and others shout in assent.

Mr. Bielat relents--and responds with aplomb. "The answer's no. Here's why. I think that there's a real advantage to us bearing the responsibility of ensuring that there's turnover in the Congress. I think there's real advantage for us ensuring that we don't allow congressional staffers, who aren't elected, to have power because they stay there for generations. So I do understand the arguments for term limits. I personally oppose term limits." It's clear that he hasn't convinced everybody, but about half the crowd applauds. Not bad for a 35-year-old first-time candidate.

A native of Rochester, N.Y., Mr. Bielat caught the "political bug" as a teenager, when he did a stint as a House page. After earning a master's in public policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he went to work as a consultant at McKinsey & Co. and an executive for iRobot Corp., a defense contractor based in Bedford, Mass. He's also a new father; his wife gave birth to their son, Theodore, over the summer.

Before Harvard, Mr. Bielat served four years as an officer in the Marines. He's still a major in the reserves, but he left active duty in 2002 and hasn't served in combat. I ask if that is a source of regret, and he says yes: "I disagreed with us going into Iraq, but all my Marines were there, all my friends were there. I wanted to be there. Instead I was sitting at Harvard, watching it on TV."

Mr. Bielat's varied résumé is quite a contrast with that of Mr. Frank, who is twice the challenger's age yet has spent more than half his adult life in Congress. "Of his 45 years of work experience, 44 have been either in political office or working for somebody in political office," Mr. Bielat says of the incumbent. "The other one was teaching at the Harvard Kennedy School." (No, Mr. Bielat did not have the congressman as a professor.)

Can he win? In a district that gave 63% of its vote to Barack Obama, Mr. Frank has to be reckoned the heavy favorite. But Mr. Bielat's quest does not look quite as quixotic as it did last October, when he quit his job at iRobot to pursue it.

Then, Massachusetts had the biggest single-party congressional delegation in the country: 12 Democrats and no Republicans. By the time Mr. Bielat made his candidacy official in February, the numbers had improved to 11 to 1 with Scott Brown's election to the Senate the preceding month.

Mr. Brown narrowly outpolled Democrat Martha Coakley in the district, which is politically more diverse than the Massachusetts stereotype. In addition to the ultraliberal Boston suburbs of Brookline and Newton--where Mr. Bielat and Mr. Frank, respectively, live--it includes more conservative outer suburbs and the blue-collar area just east of Rhode Island, beset by unemployment (13.3% in Fall River) and rife with Reagan Democrats.

Mr. Bielat says Mr. Frank "hasn't been tested. His support isn't nearly as strong as people assume, because he hasn't had a real opponent since 1982." Last month Mr. Bielat released an internal poll showing Mr. Frank ahead by only 10 points, 48% to 38%.

Mr. Frank dismissed the survey, but his own actions suggest he is worried. Two weeks ago Bill Clinton traveled to the district to stump for Mr. Frank--a visit that backfired, to hear Mr. Bielat tell it: "The minute I heard that he was bringing Bill Clinton to campaign, I shouted for joy, because it said a lot about the state of this campaign. . . . I don't think Bill Clinton being here won him a whole lot of votes. It got me a lot of money and coverage." Mr. Bielat raised some $400,000 just in the two weeks after the Sept. 14 primary.

Mr. Bielat notes that Mr. Frank has "pretty steadily maintained a 10-to-1 advantage" in funding. But some of that money has helped Mr. Bielat's name recognition. In the car on the way to dinner, we heard Mr. Frank's first radio ad of the campaign, which attacks Mr. Bielat by name for opposing the eponymous Dodd-Frank "financial reform" law. Mr. Bielat laughed and said he's grateful to the incumbent for letting voters know who he is.

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