Pat Frank: A Politician Looks at 90

From school board to state lawmaker to clerk of courts, she just keeps on going, Sue Carlton writes.
Pat Frank, at a 2016 candidate debate with then-challenger Kevin Beckner. She won. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
Pat Frank, at a 2016 candidate debate with then-challenger Kevin Beckner. She won. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Oct. 17, 2019

Over a workday lunch at an of-the-moment Tampa restaurant, Pat Frank is talking Trump. And voting rights, climate change, the Equal Rights Amendment and, most fun of all, who might run for what next in local politics. As usual, she is dressed like she stepped out of a Ralph Lauren ad.

Frank, as Democrat as Democrat gets, has had a lot of big moments over her years: winning a seat on the Hillsborough School Board when she was outraged by the state of public schools. Onward to the state House of Representatives, state Senate and county commission. And four years ago, as clerk of the courts, marrying all those happy couples en masse outside the courthouse pretty much the minute same-sex marriage was declared legal in Florida.

Pat Frank, as a state senator in Tallahassee in 1984.
Pat Frank, as a state senator in Tallahassee in 1984. [ Associated Press ]

Another big moment comes in a few weeks when this icon turns, if you can believe it, 90. With a year still left in her term. And more she wants to get done.

How does almost-90 feel? She says bluntly — frankly, you could say — you don’t think of yourself as old, but you look in the mirror and there’s this not-a-youngster looking back at you.

She’s proud of taking the clerk’s office paperless, of establishing a minimum $15-an-hour wage, even of the office’s recent brown bag lunches to get employees of different cultures talking at a time we couldn’t be more divided. So, yes, who gets the job next matters to her.

“The office is running like a top,” she says. “You’d have to go out of your way” to mess it up.

For the record, her last race was one of the more contentious in recent memory. Then-County Commissioner and fellow Democrat Kevin Beckner took her on in a campaign some saw as disrespectful to a political pioneer. She was dubbed “part-time Pat” and depicted in a cartoon sitting in a lawn chair with a tropical drink. She bested him with 59 percent of the vote to his 41.

Beckner has filed to replace her as she retires. Frank endorsed Commissioner Les Miller, but he decided not to run. (See why Tampa politics makes great lunch fodder?) The final line-up will be interesting. “You can forgive,” Frank said after she beat Beckner, “but it’s difficult to forget.” It has been said a Frank never forgets.

She survived the untimely death of her oldest daughter Stacy Frank — herself a legend in political fierceness — and of her husband, formidable Judge Richard Frank. Her small frame was dwarfed by his judicial robes the day she made history with that marriage ceremony in the courthouse square. Every day she wears her wedding ring threaded through a necklace.

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Is there an office she wishes she’d run for? She mentions Florida governor and sounds a little wistful. She will stay politically active in retirement — officially, January 2021. “Selectively so,” she says, though it’s hard to imagine for someone so all-in.

She would tell anyone considering politics it can be heartbreaking but also exhilarating, that if you don’t have a purpose and genuinely like people, there’s really no point.

At her 90th birthday party, for fun there will be a pinata. Which, given the determined politician she’s been, sounds about right.