When it comes to policy, Admiral Michael Franken isn’t easy to define on the political spectrum.
Social issues? Franken is a progressive. But what about foreign affairs, where he spent 36 years in the U.S. Navy? “I’m inventive,” he said.
Franken hopes that appeal helps him, as he is one of three Democrats running to unseat Sen. Chuck Grassley in November. But first, he must get through a primary featuring former Rep. Abby Finkenauer and Dr. Glenn Hurst, a city council member in the tiny southwest Iowa town of Minden.
The three-star vice admiral in the Navy during the Obama administration said he moved 20 times and his kids once went to three schools in one year.
From the ground up
Franken wasn’t born into wealth. He grew up the youngest of nine in a middle-class family in far northwest Iowa, where the closest town was Hudson, South Dakota. At 19, he became a foreman in a slaughterhouse, which paid for his college.
“Yeah, I smelled a little bit after work,” he chuckled. “But I know what it’s like when your future seems truncated. This isn’t the Iowa that I grew up in where the sky was the limit and the rungs of the ladder were right before you.
“We need to kind of return to that where you graduate from college and you don’t own a king’s ransom to pay in loans. But we have a problem in the country, and it’s a wage disparity. It’s that too many poor people are working poor.”
Getting things done
Franken talked about his military service as a vessel to his bipartisanship work. He had to work with different agencies over the years, but also learned more hands-on approaches to be successful.
“I’ve been known my entire life to be a doer,” Franken said. “I get things done. I’ve worked across the aisle and I’m very bipartisan in my perspective. That’s how you get things accomplished.”
He had to stitch together coalitions in the military on a bipartisan basis to create a defense agency.
“Those are the sacrifices you do in life to be successful and do your nation’s bidding,” he said.
Franken favors a public option for health insurance, but believes it needs to be phased in with Medicare for all who want it starting at age 50. He’s also a proponent of a $15 minimum wage, also gradually. Both are mainstream Democratic positions in today’s age.
“The minimum wage was designed for a family of three to live on one income with frugal elegance,” he said. “No one person can live in any form of frugality on Iowa’s minimum wage. Granted, the shop owner down on Oak Street probably has a tough time justifying $15 an hour for work, and that’s an issue I understand. But ultimately we need to go there anyway.
“If we were to boost the minimum wage to $15 an hour, I believe the number is 31% of Iowans would get a boost in their wages, and 64% of those that would get a boosted wage are female. So there’s a disconnect there.”
Franken acknowledged that the influx of money into the economy has led to inflation, but he was in favor of a slimmed-down Build Back Better bill, which would have funded much of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda through tax increases on the wealthy. That did not survive the Senate.
“Certainly we flooded the market with money, but one of the aspects of inflation is that we’ve exported so much of our capabilities overseas,” he said. “And the pandemic is still very part a part of China, so those goods and services aren’t coming here. The corporate world is also sitting on a fat amount of money. I’m not an economist, but the negative side of inflation is a recession, which was the great fear.
“I believe Build Back Better is a good plan, but I suggest we repeal the top Trump tax breaks first, and piecemeal some of the other leftover ones that were in Build Back Better.”
Franken is more apprehensive about canceling student debt, wondering if that would be an endless cycle.
“What we’re doing is treating a symptom to a larger problem,” he said. “Working in the hog slaughterhouse could pay for an entire year at school. The state doesn’t help out in education like it used to, and the student loan program makes money off loans. If we constantly wipe out college debt, what do you think the cost of college is going to do? It’s going to go up.”
He also believes the state needs to “take a better grip at agriculture” from an environmental standpoint. He sees worsening water pollution, drinking water, food supplies.
“We must do better, and I think the farmers in Iowa want to do better, and the manner in which we conduct agriculture has just pushed us to this level where it’s all about production and nothing else,” Franken said. “The farmer has little sway on whether they make money or not. They’re at the very tail end of the markets, and they’re being whip-sawed between various entities of which they have no control.”
More in common than not
During his travels around the state and hailing from one of the most conservative parts of it, Franken has heard many of the same concerns from people and believes there isn’t a lot that separates them, especially in generalities.
“Everyone has a few things in common. We want something better for our offspring. We want that century farm to potentially be a two-century farm. We want the quality of life here in the state in a way that when our children are in their working adult years, they want to come back and stay here,” he said. “I like to think I have far more in common with the right and left than I do that separates me. I believe in melding people together.
“People want a clear, empathetic, principled person as a servant leader,” he said. “Always trying to serve those around you and putting yourself absolutely in line.”
Franken believes there is a large middle of the electorate hungry for someone “pragmatic, smart and dedicated.”
“I believe I’m that person,” he said. “I’ve been asked where I fall on the scale of progressive and moderate. Well, it’s a jagged edge. I’m all over the map.
“If you want to see an expanded business environment, a great education type,” he said, “if this is what you envisioned for Iowa, where we were progressive and were 150 years ahead of Dred Scott. …You want a higher quality of life, I’m planning on giving that to you, because I want to relive that Iowa.”