A Priest – and a Congressman – Walks into a Bar: the Electoral History of Rep. Robert Drinan

 /  July 17, 2020, 3:08 p.m.

Robert Drinan, priest and representative from Massachusetts.

The most watched race in Massachusetts today is the Democratic primary for the United States Senate, where young gun Congressman Joe Kennedy III is challenging incumbent Senator Ed Markey in the September primary. Senator Markey has staked out a more progressive stance than Kennedy, boasting endorsements from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and most of the states’ congressional delegation, while Kennedy is running on a message of generational change, buoyed by endorsements from House Progressive Caucus co-Chair Mark Pocan and civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis.

In the present day, much of the “action” in the deeply Democratic Bay State follows this mold at the federal level. City Councillor Ayanna Pressley upset incumbent Rep. Mark Capuano in a Democratic primary last cycle, and in 2014, Marine Corps veteran Seth Moulton ousted incumbent Rep. John Tierney. But such was not always the case. Before the Reagan Revolution, before suburban realignment, back in the era of liberal Republicans and pro-segregation Democrats, Massachusetts was a competitive state that boasted a collection of historic election results: the first African-American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate (Edward Brooke in 1966); the youngest Senator in the nation (Ted Kennedy, elected at 30 in 1962); and the first Catholic priest elected to the U.S. Congress, Robert Drinan.

Robert Drinan was born in Boston in 1920. After spending a decade as a Jesuit, he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1953 and received his doctorate in theology the next year. In 1956, he was admitted to the Massachusetts State Bar and took up residence as the dean of the Boston College Law School. As the 1960s progressed, Drinan became more and more critical of the Vietnam War, eventually traveling to Vietnam in 1969, a trip on which he “discovered the number of political prisoners held in South Vietnam was rapidly increasing, contrary to State Department reports.” Fed up with the inaction in Washington, Fr. Drinan made a decision: He would run for Congress. 

Massachusetts’ 3rd Congressional District, 1962-1972 lines

Newton – home to Boston College Law School and to Drinan – fell within Massachusetts’ 3rd Congressional District, represented by Democratic Congressman Philip Philbin. A veteran of the First World War and college football star, Philbin was first elected to Congress in 1942, and was seeking his fifteenth term in 1970. Philbin’s position within Congress likely drew Drinan’s focus and fire: He was a member of the House Committee on Armed Services and subcommittee on Investigating. So, in the spring of 1970, though “30 percent of voters in his district thought it was improper for a priest to run for office”, Drinan announced a challenge to Philbin in the Democratic primary. But Drinan was not alone – state Representative Charles Ohanian (D-9th Middlesex), a four-term representative from Watertown, also threw his hat into the ring.

Robert Drinan won the 1970 Democratic primary, receiving 46 percent of the vote to Philbin’s 36 percent, with an additional 18 percent won by Ohanian. The election was heavily regionalized: Ohanian won his hometown of Watertown, while Drinan’s 8,122-vote margin in Newton made the difference in a race decided by fewer than 6,500 votes. Philbin’s support – unfortunately for him – lay in less population-dense areas; even though Philbin won his hometown of Clinton with 93 percent of the vote, the town had cast fewer than 2,300 ballots.

1970 Democratic primary in MA-03. Robert Drinan (cyan), Phillip Philbin (dark blue), Charles O'Hanian (purple).

Now the Democratic nominee, Robert Drinan moved on to the general election, where he faced state Representative John McGlennon (R-33rd Middlesex) of Concord. But Philbin wasn’t done. You don’t serve in Congress for twenty-eight years without developing some name recognition back home: He launched a write-in bid for the general election. 

Through his base of strength in traditionally Democratic Clinton County and his broad name recognition in the western, Worcester County portion of the district, Philbin managed to accrue over 45,000 write-in votes. However, that was not enough to prevent a third-place finish; he garnered only 26.7 percent of the vote to Drinan’s 37.7 percent and McGlennon’s 35.7 percent. Newton once again had put Drinan over the top: He took almost 20,000 votes in the town to McLennon’s 13,129, while his district-wide margin of victory was fewer than 3,400 votes.


1970 General Election results: Robert Drinan (cyan), John McGlennon (red), Phillip Philbin (yellow)

Ironically, as the people of the 4th District took the historic step of electing the first Catholic priest to serve in Congress in American history, they overwhelmingly used the rest of their ballots to support the status quo. Senator Ted Kennedy (D) won the district 62-38 on his way to winning a second term by a similar margin statewide, just one year after the infamous Chappaquiddick Incident that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. Acting Governor Francis Sargent (R) was elected to a full term over Boston Mayor Kevin White (and his running mate, then-state representative Mike Dukakis) with 58.1 percent of the district’s vote, a tick up from his statewide 56.7 percent.

Left: 1970 U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts’ 3rd Congressional District: Senator Ted Kennedy (D), businessman Josiah Spaulding (R).

Right:  1970 Governor’s election in Massachusetts’ 3rd Congressional District: Governor Francis Sargent (R), Boston Mayor Kevin White (D).

In Congress, Drinan continued to be an ardent critic of the War in Vietnam, and he began to bump up against more boundaries than he had back home. His “hard-headed” style as a campaigner translated into his politics: He described the House of Representatives as “‘100 very fine’ congressmen and ‘the old men’ who held power.” But Drinan’s commitment to his principles won him supporters as well as detractors – he ended up leading the Massachusetts delegation to the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami. South Dakota Senator George McGovern had overwhelmingly won the Massachusetts primary, one of only 22 states to conduct a primary, and won the nomination over Senators Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie, Governor George Wallace, and Rep. Shirley Chisholm. Drinan, seeing an ally in the anti-Vietnam War movement in McGovern, supported the nominee.

The McGovern campaign, however, rapidly devolved. Vice-presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton stepped down from the ticket, and debates over his replacement led to cracks in the party. Nixon grew in popularity on his way to a 49-state rout to a second term, winning every state but Massachusetts, potentially due in part to McGovern’s final choice of running mate Sargent Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family. 

After post-Census redistricting, Congressman Drinan found himself in the 4th Congressional District. While similar to the old 3rd, Drinan’s new district also took in the towns of Brookline and Framingham, which had the effect of dramatically increasing the district’s Jewish population. As a priest and as a politician, Drinan had always shown a “dedication” to the Jewish faith and people for years, attending conferences organized by the National Conference of Soviet Jewry and travelling to Israel, as well as supporting prominent Jewish Senator Abe Ribicoff (CT) to replace Eagleton on the McGovern ticket.

Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District, 1972-1982 lines

In the 1972 elections, Drinan faced off against State Representative Martin Linsky (13th Norfolk) and “independent conservative” candidate John T. Collins, who “was attacking both Drinan and Linsky from the right.” Polling showed a back and forth race, with Drinan at one point leading by as much as 21 points, but a final poll by the Boston Globe found Drinan under 50, at 46 percent to Linsky’s 35 percent and Collins’ 8 percent. Drinan’s biographer, Raymond Schroth, attributed this shift to a seeming breakthrough in Vietnamese peace talks, coupled with Linsky’s “intensified campaigning” in his hometown, the newly added Brookline.

1972 Congressional vs. Presidential Election in MA-04. Towns won by Nixon & Linsky (red), by McGovern & Drinan (blue), and by McGovern & Linsky (yellow).

The final polling was spot-on, with undecideds breaking – just not enough –  for the Republican Linsky. Drinan won with 47.7 percent of the vote to Linsky’s 43.4 percent and Collins’ 5.2 percent, even winning Linsky’s hometown of Brookline by a 3-point margin. Despite the national pro-Nixon environment, Drinan actually ran behind McGovern in his district: The South Dakotan senator won almost 56 percent of the two-party vote in the district, and nine towns to Drinan’s eight (with the addition of Lincoln, in yellow). The 1972 elections also saw liberal Republican Senator Edward Brooke romp to a second term, winning 64-35 over Middlesex County DA John Droney. Despite the majority of the 4th district’s towns falling in Middlesex County, Senator Brooke dominated in the district, winning over 70 percent of the two-party vote and every town. 

The two years of the 93rd Congress, from 1973 to 1975, provided a series of major events for American public policy and for Drinan. In 1973, the Supreme Court handed down their decision in Roe v. Wade, for the first time codifying a woman’s constitutional right to access abortion without excessive government interference. Before Roe, abortion had been an issue for some but was not the hot-button issue it is today. A 1970 poll of the then-3rd district found that even though the district was 75 percent Catholic, abortion didn’t even fall in the top twenty issues on the minds of voters. But Roe changed all that: The strategy of the Catholic Church was now “to elect representatives who would overturn” the decision, and Drinan, who supported abortion access, was “himself sometimes demonized” by his fellow Catholics.

1974 was no less earth-shaking: Allegations arose that President Richard Nixon had ordered surveillance of political opponents at Washington, D.C.’s Watergate Hotel, and the man who had won 49 states just two years prior was now the most hated man in America. But a week before the “Smoking Gun” tapes were released, in the middle of Congress and America’s inquest into the scandal, Drinan introduced an impeachment resolution on July 31. Instead of jumping on the Watergate bandwagon, however, the anti-war priest and congressman introduced his resolution because of the “recent revelation that President Nixon conducted a totally secret air raid in Cambodia for 14 months prior to April 30, 1970.”

Congress in the '70s was unlike Congress today, where everyone and their cousin seems to introduce impeachment resolutions seemingly once a month (from 2017 to 2019, Texas Rep. Al Green introduced four impeachment resolutions alone). A New York Times article detailing Drinan’s resolution described impeachment as a “little-used provision” and just ten days before Nixon’s resignation, “there appear[ed] little support in the House even to consider impeachment proceedings.” That lack of support translated into the public field, especially with regard to Drinan’s resolution. House Majority Leader, later Speaker, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, also of Massachusetts, later wrote that “morally, Drinan had a good case … but politically, he damn near blew it.” The American people didn’t know enough about Nixon’s secret actions in Cambodia, O’Neill thought, and he feared that one failed impeachment resolution would make it much harder to pass another, regardless of the subject matter.

As Drinan grew into more of a fixture in politics, certain louder members of the Catholic Church spoke out against a priest holding elected office. Drinan’s biographer describes Drinan’s approach to his reelection campaign as “split-level”: “running against the political opponent[s] he could see in the Fourth District and against unseen, but present in their letters, authorities in Rome and throughout the American Church who did not want him in Congress.” 

Thankfully for Drinan, the 1974 midterm elections were a banner year for Democrats. Democrats won four Senate seats to make a supermajority, and expanded their majority in the House to 291 seats – over two thirds of the lower chamber. Republicans knew this wave was coming after Nixon’s resignation: Their nominee to run against Drinan, a former state treasurer and Congressman Laurence Curtis, who had left his Newton-based seat in an unsuccessful Senate bid 12 years prior, dropped out of the race after the primary. However, Drinan’s real competition was in the shape of twenty-six year old state Rep. Jon Rotenberg (13th Norfolk).

A former aide to Tip O’Neill, Rotenberg was running as an independent Democrat, foregoing a primary campaign against Drinan and heading straight into the general election. In an interview with Rotenberg, he described the strategy as modelled off the successful 1972 campaign of former state Senate Joe Moakley who, running as an independent, had defeated Congresswoman Louise Day Hicks of the Boston-based 9th District. Primaries were incredibly low turnout operations in the '70s, where only the most fervent supporters of a candidate would vote. Moakley knew he couldn’t beat Hicks, an ardent opponent of integrated bussing, in a Democratic primary – so he went directly to the general election and won. 

Political operatives in Massachusetts were also growing tired of Drinan’s close races. “They knew if I got elected, they would own the seat,” Rotenberg told me. Rotenberg described himself as a social liberal and fiscal moderate, who had spent his four years in the state legislature fighting to reform rape laws and boost economic development. His challenger campaigning style was described as Kennedy-esque, utilizing his youth and good looks in TV ads, while contrasting his successes in Boston with Drinan’s ineffectiveness, “saying that [Drinan] had ‘never had one bill signed into law that he wrote.’” Rotenberg and his supporters also ran an “extensive” campaign in the district’s Jewish community, “organizing Jewish youth groups” in his hometown of Brookline and in other Jewish suburbs. 

In the end, Rotenberg’s challenge was unsuccessful. Political analysts of the day attributed Drinan’s slim victory (49.2 percent of the vote) to “a very limited set of circumstances: a large Catholic vote, plus a large liberal Jewish vote, plus a growing number of suburban ‘WASP’ liberals, of course all held together by a symbol of moral rectitude inspired by providing service to the community.” Rotenberg described his loss somewhat differently. After the Republican nominee dropped out of the race, he was replaced by Alvin Mandell, a Jewish World War II veteran and electrical engineer who would later be elected to the Newton school board. Rotenberg credits Mandell’s entrance into the race to Drinan’s supporters: If they hadn’t had Mandell “pushed into” the race, he claims, “I would have won.”

Alas, Mandell took almost twenty-two thousand votes, and Drinan won a third term with under 50 percent of the vote, losing only the town of Weston to Rotenberg. However, if we are to look at Drinan’s support vs. the “anti-Drinan” vote, we can see what a potential victory over Drinan may have looked like: a coalition of rural Republicans in towns that had supported Nixon two years prior and the suburban Jewish population of Brookline.

Left:  1974 Congressional Election in MA-04. Drinan (dark blue), Rotenberg (cyan)

Right: 1974 Congressional Election in MA-04. Drinan (dark blue), combined votes for Rotenberg and Mandell (pink)

After his loss, Rotenberg went on to work for the National Conference of Soviet Jewry (NCSJ) in Washington, an organization supported by Drinan, where he spent years fighting and bargained with American and Soviet politicians and diplomats to “institutionalize human rights” for Russian Jewish people. Rotenberg, now 73, reflected fondly on the work he had done for the organization, especially with regard to the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Papers from the NCSJ detail one of his assignments at the time, a trip to Leningrad on behalf of the organization, and Rotenberg’s discussion of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment with Soviet activists, a piece of legislation that restricted trade access to communist countries accused of human rights violations. On the home front, he recounted whipping support for and working on the Helsinki Accords with the likes of Jacob Javits and Dante Fascall. After his time in Washington, he turned to the private sector and political fundraising: A 1988 New York Times article on the Dukakis campaign describes him as “Jon Rotenberg, 40, who owns art galleries and sailboat stores and runs the Florida finance operation.” 

Fourteen years before that article was written, Mike Dukakis had his first major victory: In the 1974 Democratic wave, he ousted Republican governor Francis Sargent by an eleven point margin to become the first Democratic governor of Massachusetts in over a decade. Drinan’s district was of no help to the Dukakis campaign, despite the governor being a Brookline native, and Sargent carried the district by around 5 percent. Dukakis lost suburban Newton by thousands of votes even as Drinan won it. Dukakis ran best in Boston and in more rural Democratic areas – under the lines of the old 4th district, the Democratic ticket would have won the district by around 5 percent.

Left: 1974 gubernatorial election in MA-04. Mike Dukakis (D), Francis Sargent (R).

Right: 1974 gubernatorial election under 1960's MA-03 lines.

When Drinan returned to Washington in 1975, he was met by the second priest elected to the U.S. Congress: Robert Cornell of Wisconsin’s 8th District. Cornell had run two unsuccessful campaigns in ‘70 and ‘72 and would serve in Congress until losing a bid for reelection in 1978.

Elections to U.S. Congress in Wisconsin’s 8th District, 1970-1978.

During his third term, from 1975 to 1977, Drinan expanded his socially liberal policy portfolio. He fought to extend the Voting Rights Act of 1975 through the requirement of multilingual ballots and an “attorney fee provision benefiting successful litigants who extended voting rights.” He was one of only eight House members (of 435) to receive a perfect score from the League of Conservation Voters. If he had his druthers, he would even “amend the Controlled Substances Act to permit any person to possess marijuana.” Drinan proposed a ban on the ownership, possession, import, manufacture, purchase, sale, transference, receipt, or transportation of “any handgun or handgun ammunition”. He even voted against the Hyde Amendment, a piece of legislation that would prevent federal funds from being used to fund abortion procedures, much to the ire of Massachusetts pro-life groups and certain members of the Catholic Church. 

The 1976 Democratic primary for president was chaotic to say the least. The Massachusetts primary ballot showed fourteen candidates from across the nation, and this incredibly wide field allowed Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington to win the primary with only 22.3 percent of the vote. Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter came in fourth in the Bay State with just under 14 percent of the vote, behind Jackson, Arizona Rep. Mo Udall (17.7 percent), and the fierce segregationist Governor George Wallace of Alabama (16.7 percent). In the 4th district, however, Udall came out on top (with Drinan’s endorsement), beating Jackson by a margin of around two thousand votes, equal to his winning margin in Newton; Gov. Carter came in third, carrying the towns of Lancaster and Lunenburg. 

1976 Democratic presidential primary in MA-04. Rep. Mo Udall (green), Sen. Scoop Jackson (yellow), Gov. Jimmy Carter (purple).

Drinan’s 1976 reelection campaign presented the priest with a political first for him: a two-way race. Republicans nominated Arthur Mason, a Jewish Vietnam veteran and former Nixon aide from Brookline. Mason, a former Democrat, hit Drinan for “grabbing headlines on ‘moral issues’” instead of working for his constituents – a common theme among the Congressman’s challengers – and claimed Drinan’s anti-war stance “put Israel’s security at risk.” But an early poll of the district did not show Mason’s message landing. 65 percent of Jewish people and 59 percent of Catholics described Drinan’s job performance as “excellent or good”, though only 39 percent of Protestants levied similar levels of praise. 

As the election moved closer, the race grew closer and more polarized. “Voters either loved [Drinan] or hated him.” Massachusetts political titans entered the race: The state’s Republican Senator Ed Brooke backed Mason, and Senator Ted Kennedy, who was running for reelection, backed Drinan. Mason outspent Drinan as the national Republican Party “marked Drinan as one they would most like to beat.” Drinan brought in Elie Weisel to campaign for him among the Jewish community; Mason brought in Jacob Javits. In the end, the combination of Carter’s victory over President Ford and Senator Kennedy’s dominant 40-point reelection win over Republican businessman Michael Robertson were too much for Mason to overcome. Drinan won his fourth term in another close race, taking 50.4 percent of the vote to Mason’s 46.4 percent. Despite Drinan’s increased percentage of the vote, his 1976 campaign saw him win the fewest number of towns since his original win in 1970, as well as a close loss in Waltham, which had supported him in every prior race. Carter dramatically overperformed Drinan in the district, winning the district 55-42 on his way to a 16-point statewide win. Sen. Kennedy won every town in the district, with margins ranging from 10 votes (Weston) to over 14,000 (Brookline). 

Left: 1976 Congressional election in MA-04. Arthur Mason (R), Robert Drinan (D).

Right: 1976 Presidential race in MA-04. Gerald Ford (R), Jimmy Carter (D).

Two years later, Drinan faced another challenge, a primary challenger whose views were almost entirely the same as his, except for one: abortion. Norman Walker, an English teacher and football coach at Newton North High School, had been recruited by a number of local Catholics to challenge Drinan’s pro-choice history in Washington. One of Walker’s largest backers was none other than Rev. Richard Philbin, “the Jesuit brother of the longtime congressman, recently deceased, who Drinan had defeated in 1970.” But just as Phillip Philbin had lost his primary to Drinan, so did Walker, losing almost 2-to-1 and not winning a single town. Despite his Newton residence, Walker ran strongest in the more blue-collar, western towns. Drinan went into the November general election unopposed. For once, Drinan’s race was the most boring in the 4th District.

Strength map of Norman Walker’s 1978 primary run against Drinan. Darker green indicates a higher vote percentage.

As Drinan sailed through the Democratic primary, the same could not be said for Governor Dukakis. The incumbent governor was opposed in the primary by two candidates: former Massachusetts Port Authority director Edward J. King and former Cambridge mayor Barbara Ackerman, attacking him from the right and left, respectively. Sandwiched between two poles, Governor Dukakis lost his bid for renomination 51-42 to King, but did carry Drinan’s district by a 13-point margin, likely due to the district’s inclusion of Dukakis’s hometown of Brookline and King’s strong pro-life stances. King would go on to defeat Republican House Minority leader Frank Hatch Jr. in the general election by a five-point margin, but would lose the 4th district by a punishing 15 percent. Dukakis – and his running mate, Middlesex DA John Kerry – would defeat King in the 1982 primary. 

Left: 1978 Democratic gubernatorial primary in MA-04. Mike Dukakis (dark blue), Edward King (cyan).

Right: 1978 MA-Gov election in MA-04. Frank Hatch, Jr. (R), Edward King (D).

Another barnburning election was taking place for the United States Senate in ‘78, where liberal Republican Ed Brooke was seeking a third term. After staving off a close challenge (53-47 statewide, 55-45 in MA-04) from conservative radio host Avi Nelson in the primary, the incumbent Senator faced off against Democratic Congressman Paul Tsongas. Brooke, bogged down by a messy divorce and an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee, lost to Tsongas by over 10 points, yet still won the two-party vote in Drinan’s district 58-42.


Left: 1978 Massachusetts GOP Senate primary in MA-04. Sen. Edward Brooke (red), Avi Nelson (pink).

Right: 1978 U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, MA-04. Rep. Paul Tsongas (D), Sen. Edward Brooke (R).

Little did Drinan know, his 1978 cakewalk would be to his final term in Congress. In April 1980, when Drinan was fully expecting to run for reelection, the Pope himself, John Paul II, “ordered Drinan … [to] withdraw his candidacy for a sixth term.” Drinan appealed, but three days before the filing deadline, “the Vatican said its decision was final.” Though the directive at first only applied to Drinan, Robert Cornell, who was seeking a comeback bid for the Wisconsin seat he had lost in 1978, also suspended his campaign. The days of Catholic priests in politics had come to an end.

But an open congressional seat doesn’t stay open for long. Four Democratic candidates threw their hats into the ring to succeed Drinan, with two running competitive campaigns: state Rep. Barney Frank (8th Suffolk) and Waltham Mayor Arthur J. Clark. The other two candidates, activist Robert Shaffer and state Rep. David Mofenson (13th Middlesex), accounted for just over 1 percent of the final votes cast combined. Frank won the close race over Clark 51.3 percent to 45.9 percent. Again, a battle had emerged between socially liberal and socially conservative Democrats, with Drinan backing the more liberal Frank over the more conservative Clark.

1980 Democratic congressional primary in MA-04. Rep. Barney Frank (cyan), Mayor Arthur Clark (green).

Two other electoral contests occurred in the spring of 1980: the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries. President Jimmy Carter, facing poor approval numbers over the Iran Hostage Crisis and a poor economy, was challenged by Massachusetts’ own Ted Kennedy. Though Carter eventually secured the nomination, Kennedy crushed him in the Massachusetts primary more than 2-to-1, and won MA-04 by a margin of 65-27. Carter won only two towns in the district, each by less than 50 votes. On the Republican side, the race was far closer. Three Republican candidates legitimately contested the Massachusetts primary: Illinois Congressman John Anderson, former CIA Director George H.W. Bush, and former California Governor Ronald Reagan. Though Bush won statewide, albeit by less than 2,000 votes, Rep. Anderson won the Republican primary in the 4th by more than 3,000 votes.


Left: 1980 Democratic presidential primary in MA-04. Sen. Ted Kennedy (purple), Pres. Jimmy Carter (yellow).

Right: 1980 Republican presidential primary in MA-04. Rep. John Anderson (magenta), Dir. George H.W. Bush (blue), Gov. Ronald Reagan (green).

Though Reagan eventually clinched the Republican presidential nomination and chose George H.W. Bush as his running mate, the voters had another chance to support John Anderson come November when he launched an independent campaign for the presidency. Massachusetts was actually Anderson’s best state in the general election: He won over 15 percent of the vote in the Bay State, compared to 6.6 percent nationally. In this district he ran even higher, securing 16.4 percent of the vote against Carter and Reagan. Even as Reagan carried the state (with only 41.9 percent of the vote, thanks to Anderson), Carter edged him in MA-04, winning the district with 41.7 percent to Reagan’s 39.4 percent. Anderson performed best in the more suburban portions of the district, winning up to 27 percent (in the town of Lincoln).

Left: 1980 presidential election in MA-04. Ronald Reagan (R) vs. Jimmy Carter (D).

Right: Strength map of John Anderson’s 1980 presidential bid in MA-04. Darker green indicates a higher vote percentage.

Down the ballot, state Rep. and Democratic nominee Barney Frank was about to learn that it wasn’t Drinan’s stances that made the 4th a competitive seat. He faced off against Republican Richard Jones, “a retired army dentist and political unknown who at one time had been part of the John Birch Society.” But even political nobodies can get swept up in a wave, and on election night 1980, sixty-three Democratic seats flipped to the GOP … just not in Massachusetts. Frank pulled out the win, defeating Jones 51.3 percent to 45.9 percent despite losing Fitchburg, a factory town that had voted for every federal and gubernatorial Democratic candidate since at least 1970. 

1980 congressional general election for MA-04. Barney Frank (D) vs. Richard Jones (R).

Drinan was out of politics, but he wasn’t out of Washington. After stepping away from his Capitol Hill office, Drinan accepted a professorship at Georgetown University, where he continued his political activism and fighting for human rights just far enough away from the Capitol to keep the Church happy. Reflecting on his time in office, Drinan said, “I [once] told my audience [at an event] that God had sent me to Washington to do what St. Patrick had done for Ireland – drive the snakes out of this city. I had accomplished my mission in my ten years in Congress. But then the snakes came back!”

The next round of congressional redistricting radically altered the 4th District. It continued to include Brookline and Newton, but now it swung dramatically south to run along the Rhode Island border. Today, much of the western portion of Drinan’s old district is back a part of the 3rd District, represented in 2020 by Democrat Lori Trahan. Barney Frank represented the newly-drawn 4th District for decades, retiring in 2012 at the age of 72. In 1987, Congressman Frank had come out as gay, becoming the first sitting member of Congress to do so – another first for MA-04. Today, the 4th District is represented by Congressman Joe Kennedy III of Brookline, grand-nephew of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, and twelve candidates are running to replace him as he challenges Senator Markey in the August Democratic primary. 

Drinan passed away in 2007 at the age of 86. His post-congressional career was long and storied; he had served as president of Americans for Direct Action, spoken out against abortion bans through the Clinton administration, and had been an ardent defender of human rights at home and abroad. In 2012, a woman came forward with accusations that Drinan had inappropriately touched her in her teenage years, and acknowledged that “I’m aware that I’ll be assailed for besmirching the memory of a distinguished man”. Drinan’s family said of the accusations, “We find it odd that anyone would come forward with this allegation decades later when our uncle is dead and in no position to defend himself.” These accusations did not result in further investigation or discussion beyond a brief moment in 2012, though I felt it necessary to add them.

Robert Drinan is not a remembered figure in American politics today outside perhaps the halls of Georgetown University, but even there the memory of the old priest grows thin. Every election cycle welcomes the first, or the youngest, new politician to Washington, D.C. – but it is far less common for the first of anything in elected office to be the last, and Fr. Drinan was one of the few to hold that dual distinction. His legacy reminds us that faith and Democratic politics need not be at odds – a debate that has seemingly burst into the limelight in recent years, as this year’s Democratic presidential candidates seemed to quote scripture as much as their conservative counterparts – and that faith is not always merely another tool in the politicians’ belt. Drinan let his religious convictions guide him to promote peace among nations and expanded rights for women, but when it too dictated he leave public office, he did.

All images were either created by the author or are in the public domain. Original photograph of Linsky can be found here. Original photographs of Mofenson, Rotenberg and Drinan can be found here. Data for maps come from the UCLA Department of Political Science and the Massachusetts' Secretary of State's office.

Ridgley Knapp

Ridgley Knapp is a graduate of the College and second-year MPP student at the Harris School for Public Policy. When he's not working in or writing about politics and policy, he enjoys rowing and the New York Times crossword.


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