FAIRFIELD — U.S. Senate candidate Michael Franken was in Fairfield on the night of Tuesday, Nov. 26, to address members of the public at a meeting-and-greet at SOMM Wines.
Franken, a Democrat, is running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Joni Ernst, who was elected in 2014. Ernst’s seat is up for election in 2020.
Franken retired in 2017 after nearly four decades in the United States Navy. He attained the rank of vice admiral, and performed a number of roles that took him all over the globe. His final posting was as deputy director of military operations for the United States Africa Command.
Franken was born and raised in northwest Iowa. He earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering, a master’s degree from the College of Physics at the Naval Postgraduate School and professional studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and at the Brookings Institute.
Franken joined the Navy in 1978, and went on to live on four continents and work what he calls the “full spectrum” of defense, diplomacy and development. He commissioned the USS Winston S. Churchill, commanded a squadron of ships, an international task force at sea, and served as the ground task force commander for the 4,000 personnel on the continent of Africa.
During the Clinton Administration (1993-2001), Franken was in school at the Brookings Institute. He was approached about an opportunity to work in legislative affairs with Democratic U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, who at that point had been a Senator for more than 30 years and who continued to serve until his death in 2009.
“Ted Kennedy was the Democrat who swung the biggest hammer at that time since he was chairman of the sea power subcommittee, and he was quite involved in education,” Franken recalls. “I was the first military person to ever work for him, and from then on he had military people work for him until the day he died. We worked together on foreign policy and agricultural issues in Massachusetts. I had a good relationship with Ted.”
Franken said politics played a minor role in his upbringing. He was raised in what he calls an “apolitical environment in a rural area of a conservative state.” He said his colleagues in the Navy tried to keep politics out of their operations, too.
He took a keener interest in politics in the 1980s during the savings and loan crisis in which about one third of savings and loan associations failed during a 10-year period.
“It took much of my parents’ life-savings, and was very hard on farmers in Iowa,” Franken said.
Franken felt the problem was caused by President Ronald Reagan’s ideas of deregulation. Later on, when he went to work for Ted Kennedy, he said he “realized there are no demons hiding behind the Democratic Party.”
As Franken moved around the globe for work, he gained a broader perspective on life and politics.
“My perspective was that, with the advent of the 2016 election, there was only one party I could be a member of, and it was the Democratic Party,” Franken said. “I don’t think I would be running for office if this was 1995 or 2005.”
Franken lists three pillars that his campaign stands on, and they are: 1) Comprehensive health care like the kind he received in the military; 2) Addressing climate change by rejoining the Paris Accords; and 3) Limiting the influence of special interests.
The Union asked Franken what he would do differently from Sen. Ernst. He said he would be a stronger advocate for the environment, and that he would not vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement. He said he would not attempt to repeal cleat water regulations.
On foreign policy, he said the Trump administration erred in pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. He also spoke about President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw soldiers from northern Syria.
“We need to think through the removal of forces that are partnered with the Kurds, and just the manner in which decisions are being executed is of concern for me,” he said. “Flip discussions and sudden announcements take our combatant commanders unaware. That’s probably never a good thing.”
Franken’s campaign headquarters are in Sioux City. The Union asked him why he chose to locate the headquarters on the western edge of the state instead of in the center. Franken said he placed the headquarters in a rural part of the state to demonstrate that he wants to represent the rural parts of Iowa. Plus, he said the western side of the state is more heavily Republican, so he figures that if he can make inroads there, he likes his chances for winning the whole state.