A former lobbyist with Pennsylvania’s American Civil Liberties Union and a longtime LGBT advocate was found dead last week in Washington, D. C.
Larry Frankel reportedly died of natural causes. He was 54.
A jogger spotted his body in a stream in Rock Creek Park in the northwest section of D.C. and contacted police shortly before noon Aug. 28.
Andy Chirls, Frankel’s longtime partner until recently, said the D.C. Medical Examiner’s Office told him they did not suspect foul play.
Chirls said Frankel, who was wearing jogging clothes when he was found, had been experiencing cardiac and asthma symptoms in the days and weeks prior to his death. Chirls said the medical examiner suspects Frankel was jogging and suffered an asthma attack, heart attack or dehydration that caused disorientation, or a combination of these conditions.
“The ME says that there is nothing inconsistent with any or all of these things happening at once,” Chirls said. “They don’t suspect there was any harm done to him by himself or by others.”
Frankel contacted the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, where he had worked as the state legislative counsel since March 2008, last Wednesday morning saying he would not be in that day because he’d been up the previous night with symptoms of food poisoning.
Chirls noted that symptoms such as dizziness and nausea, common signs of food poisoning, can also be a “mask of a heart attack.”
The Metropolitan Police have not yet determined how long Frankel’s body was at the scene. He was found floating in a stream in a wooded area about 20 feet from a running trail near Georgetown University, but Chirls said the last time Frankel had made contact with anyone via his Blackberry was Wednesday morning.
Homicide detectives did respond to the scene, but police spokesperson Officer Kenny Bryson said police are treating this as a “death investigation” until the results of the autopsy are available.
“This case is still active and ongoing,” Bryson said.
Beverly Fields, spokesperson for the D.C. Medical Examiner, said the determination of cause of death is “still pending.”
Frankel launched his career with the Pennsylvania ACLU in 1992 as the chapter’s legislative director, a position he held until last year, when he made the move to the national office. Frankel also took the helm of the local agency as its executive director from 1996-2001.
Chirls and Frankel, a native of Burbank, Calif., had been together since they met in 1978 — while both were attending the University of California at Berkeley’s law school — until their separation a few months ago.
Frankel worked as an associate at a local law firm after the couple graduated and moved to Philadelphia and later launched his own legal practice, but Chirls said Frankel was able to exercise his true passions when he went to work for the ACLU.
“He really cared about individuals. He used to say, ‘All the other lobbyists, their clients are corporations and rich people, and my client is the Constitution of the United States,’” Chirls said.
Gov. Rendell released a statement this week after news of Frankel’s death broke, calling him “one of the most effective advocates for civil liberties and justice in Pennsylvania.”
“Larry understood that in the fight to preserve and expand our civil liberties, being civil was as important as being right,” the governor said.
Andy Hoover, who took over Frankel’s position with the local ACLU last summer and who worked closely with him on several legislative campaigns during his time as an ACLU community organizer, supported Rendell’s assertion.
He noted that he had observed Frankel’s diplomacy firsthand when the pair was at the Capitol Rotunda in 2006 for debate on the failed legislation proposed by Rep. Scott Boyd (R-43rd Dist.) that would have banned same-sex marriage in the state constitution.
“Scott Boyd came through the Rotunda and he and Larry stopped and talked for about two minutes, and they even shared a joke,” Hoover said. “Something that Larry said made him laugh. The fact that he could have this kind of conversation with somebody who was doing something that was so detrimental to his cause says a lot about the kind of person he was.”
Hoover said Frankel was one of the driving forces behind the push to block the antigay Marriage Protection Amendment and was a tireless advocate for other LGBT issues, like the effort to ban antigay discrimination in the state. Frankel took on a leadership role every time such a bill was introduced in the past four legislation sessions, he added.
“Each time, he was willing to put in the work to be sure we could advance it another step,” Hoover said. “In the last session, there was a hearing on the bill and he laid the groundwork for that with our allies. He knew not to give up, and he knew that it took patience and hard work. He always kept his eye on the long-term progress that he knew we could make.”
Stacey Sobel, former executive director of Equality Advocates Pennsylvania, said Frankel, besides being one of her closest friends, was a skilled lobbyist who knew the ropes in Harrisburg.
“He had great passion for his work. And he really utilized all of his talents to the fullest,” she said. “He was very knowledgeable about the issues. He mastered the legislative rules and procedures and he was able to make and maintain relationships, often with people that you wouldn’t typically think would be supportive of the issues that the ACLU supports.”
Sobel said she and Frankel used to have a “contest” of sorts, where they would seek out cosponsorships from legislators who would typically be least likely to support bills that ACLU or Equality Advocates were backing.
“We really wanted to show that the issue of civil rights and individuals’ rights and liberties are issues that should concern everyone, no matter if it’s something that you normally wouldn’t think a particular legislator would back,” she said.
Pennsylvania Rep. Mark Cohen (D-202nd Dist.) said he worked with Frankel to defeat school vouchers, legislation to require photo identification for voter registration and other civil-rights issues, including the fight against the Marriage Protection Amendment.
Cohen said Frankel was a ubiquitous presence in Harrisburg and was committed to educating legislators on both sides of the aisle that “civil rights were an everyday concern” and were affected by many pieces of legislation, not only the ones that made the headlines.
“Larry tried very hard to show people that numerous bills had civil-liberties aspects. He would give us briefs and he’d write one- or two-page memos and enclose a note saying, ‘If you’re interested, here’s a 25-page court decision you can read.’ It was just a constant stream of facts he’d give us,” Cohen said. “He’d talk to us in the hallways, come to our offices and was just always present and always friendly.”
State Rep. Babette Josephs (D-182nd Dist.), a longtime friend of Frankel, said he made an effort to see a situation from all sides when trying to garner legislators’ support.
“He knew how to figure out what would benefit the person he was talking to. He knew how to put himself in their shoes,” she said. “With all of the very-difficult civil-liberties issues, he was always persuasive because he knew what it was that people were concerned about.”
Josephs noted that Frankel was “always knowledgeable, always completely 100-percent honest and always had good information” and that, even if legislators didn’t support his position with a vote, “if they didn’t have the brains or the courage, they still always had respect for him.”
Pennsylvania Rep. Dwight Evans (D-203rd Dist.) said Frankel was a perennial champion for the public good.
“Larry’s voice will be sorely missed in the public arena,” Evans said. “He was a good guy. He was always right on the issues because he always tried to do what was right for people.”
When Frankel moved on to the Washington Legislative Office, he took on the responsibility of coordinating state-level lobbying activities in ACLU chapters throughout the country.
“He had such a good knowledge and understanding of ACLU issues and the ACLU organization, which is a many-headed beast, and that was key to fulfilling the role that we wanted him to play on the national level,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office.
Macleod-Ball said Frankel’s transition to the position was seamless and in his year-and-a-half tenure with the D.C. office, he spearheaded numerous legislative issues, namely the fight against mandatory DNA testing for all those who are arrested.
Macleod-Ball said Frankel was able to effortlessly advocate for the wide array of issues the ACLU supports without buckling under pressure.
“He had a really steady demeanor. There wasn’t anything that was going to fluster Larry. No matter how tough the odds were against some legislative battle, Larry had good ideas about how we could step back, plan a strategy and try to implement it. And he thought that if it worked out, that’s great, and if not he’ll live to fight it another day.
“He had a really substantial intellectual capacity to understand a broad range of things and speak about them intelligently,” Macleod-Ball said.
Chirls said Frankel’s intelligence also translated into his personal life.
He was an avid reader with a particular interest in works about American history and Hebrew and Spanish literature, although Chirls noted that, “if it was in print, he would read it.”
Frankel also had a passion for travel and had just recently returned from a family wedding in Israel. Chirls said he and Frankel had previously visited Israel and several Spanish-speaking countries.
He said Frankel was also an outdoors enthusiast and lobbied for an “outdoors and nature part” of every trip they took, and that he often went hiking on the weekends.
After accepting the position with the national ACLU, Frankel bought an apartment in D.C. but continued to visit Philadelphia, where he shared a home with Chirls, once or twice a week.
Cohen noted that it will be difficult to find another lobbyist with the same level of passion and dedication as Frankel.
“He genuinely cared about people,” Cohen said. “The reason he cared about these issues so much is because he cared about people.”
Frankel is survived by Chirls, brothers Norman and Kenneth, sister Leslie, father Richard and many friends and colleagues.
His family held a funeral Sept. 3 in California, and Chirls said a memorial service will be held in Philadelphia at the end of September or beginning of October.
Donations can be made in Frankel’s name to the American Civil Liberties Foundation, P.O. Box 40008, Philadelphia, PA 19106 or to the Fairmount Park Conservancy, 1617 John F. Kennedy Blvd., Suite 1670, Philadelphia, PA 19103.