Mike Franken, retired 3-star admiral, candidate for U.S. Senate

Retired 3-star Adm. Mike Franken believes he has the right stuff to represent Iowa in the U.S. Senate, unseating incumbent Joni Ernst (R-Red Oak) in next November’s general election.

First, though, he will have to run in the June 2020 Democratic primary against a field that currently has three other announced candidates - Theresa Greenfield, of Des Moines, president of a real estate and development company; Kimberly Graham, an attorney in Des Moines; and Eddie Mauro, a businessman from Des Moines.

Franken moved to Sioux City after retiring from the Navy in October 2017.

He grew up in Lebanon, a small town in Sioux County, one of the most strongly Republican counties in Iowa, where his father, Joe, ran a machine shop and his mother, Ruth, was a 1-room school teacher before she started having children. Mike was the last of the family’s nine children.

In college he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, intending to only serve a short stint. He instead made it a 36-year-long career.

It is his military experience, which took him to service on four continents and to Washington, D.C., and his small-town background that Franken points to as qualifications to represent Iowa in the U.S. Senate.

Franken, who announced his candidacy in August, said he is running because he saw representation of Iowa not reflecting what he thought was in the best interests of the state.

“I saw many of the measures that the elected officials pushed were riven with special interests, did not have the long-term interests with our progeny – the kids after next - from health care to addressing climate crises issues to wealth disparities and the like,” he said.

“I thought not only those things, but there’s an opportunity costs with the decisions that we make and when we don’t take full measure of what’s the art of the feasible, then we’re missing out; we’re underachieving,” Franken added.

He said through his perspective of being gone while serving in the Navy but returning to visit his family and siblings, he could see a slow degradation of small-town America,

Some of the reasons were demographics and culture, Franken said, but he also offered as reasons poor policy and some short-sighted measures made by others, most outside the state, and legislators that let that happen.

Franken visited with customers at Cronk’s Café in Denison on Monday and then sat down with the Denison Bulletin and Review to discuss a number of issues.

Health care

Franken said the end state of the health care debate is well realized; it’s how to get to the end state that’s in disagreement.

He said the end state is that everybody should have the type of health care a military person receives.

“I’ve had 40 years of dental, preventative, mental and physical health care. Ideally, for every American, that ought to be a birth right,” Franken said.

“Now, how we pay for it, how it’s delivered, that’s part of a comprehensive approach that needs to be implemented.

“But we shouldn’t fight about the end state. The end state is well recognized. It shouldn’t be something that causes families to go broke, bankruptcies or good health care to be unachievable, unreachable due to the financial cost or the unavailability.”


Franken said the present administration has made bad trade policies.

“I’ve penned many, many international agreements in my time in the military, and the manner in which to do that is you develop overwhelming consensus of like-minded entities, in this case, countries, and you know where your decisions base is and you know where your opponent’s decisions base is,” he said. “You find where that accommodation reach is. You don’t do it by reflective tweets at 11 o’clock on a Sunday night.”

Franken said he held the East Asia account in two different jobs in the military and believes the Chinese are not going to fold on the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration.

“Consequently, we’re going to live with this improperly executed trade policy for potentially years to come, and more to that point, while this is happening - this is an opportunity cost again - the Chinese are developing alternate markets,” he said.

He said commodities keep being produced, relationships keep growing, efficiencies are made, banking relationships are developed, and re-entry into trade agreements can’t be done seamlessly.

“We’re in for a less than accommodating future due to short-sighted political action,” he said.

Franken believes there was another way to go after the theft of intellectual properties by China that is at the heart of the tariffs.

He continued that to go alone and not include other nations as part of the trade discussions with China is the wrong way.

“This is not the America of 1965. We are part of a larger league of nations,” he explained. “We’re the largest world economy but you don’t confront the second largest world economy when you’re the debtor nation. And that we are. They will outlast us.”

Education offsets for service

Franken proposed the idea of non-mandatory government service for youth ages 18 to 22 who, in return, would receive offsets for college or technical education.

“I think of government service or a government service program expanded from today’s 25,000 to something greater as in 2.5 million to let 18- to 22-year-olds do something that’s outside of their comfort zone and explore life,” he said. “And some may go into the forestry service, some may go into the VA (Veterans Administration), some provide other services, inner city schools and rural schools and ultimately some may go into the military, but it’s a cross-pollination of the divided youth today.”

Franken also sees the idea as a way to get young people involved in rebuilding the nation’s extensive infrastructure.

“A labor pool for infrastructure would be a great opportunity for a lot of kids. We’re growing 18-year-olds today that have never perspired in the art of labor. So maybe we ought to rejuvenate a little of that, give back to the country, at a low wage, but give them an opportunity to get out and develop a circle of friends that’s a little more extensive than what the accident of birth has provided them,” he said.

Experience and qualifications

Franken pointed the myriad of jobs he had while growing up as part of his qualifications. He worked in his father’s machine shop, was a farm hand, a construction worker, worked in a hog-kill plant for three years to earn money for college, was a math tutor and worked as a civil engineer for a law firm.

“And as the boys in our family did, I joined the military when I was in college,” Franken said.’

He graduated from the College of Engineering at the University of Nebraska and from the College of Physics at the Naval Postgraduate School. He attended the Brookings Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Seminar XXI program, the Darden School and other executive education courses.

He said in his military career he commanded ships, battle groups, all the land forces on the continent of Africa, worked with and had great exposure to all branches of the military, served three tours in legislative affairs including chief of legislative affairs for Navy and Marine Corps, brought the defense budget forward on the appropriations and authorization side, and served in many jobs in Washington, D.C. in public policy and strategy.

“But still always came to Iowa whenever I had a free moment to do so,” Franken said. “I believe that my perspective in international affairs, having moved 28 times, living on four continents, that I’ve developed a keen awareness of what constitutes good governance, what constitutes less than good governance and what the second or third order effects of good and bad policy bring to the citizenry.”

He said 15 years ago, before the United States invaded Iraq, it was clear to him that, because of his time spent in the Middle East, the nation “didn’t have our ducks in a row in our invasion. I voted against it, was rather vociferous about it.”

Franken continued that 10 years before he argued that the Department of Defense needed to change its carbon footprint.

“We needed to have less of a footprint. We needed to look at the material we were buying in the defense department because we were restricting where we can go with that equipment due to its noise, due to its footprint, due to its weight, due to its pollution quotient and so on,” he explained.

Franken said he could serve in Washington without having to go through a learning curve.

He was the first military person to serve as a legislative fellow for the late Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy.

Franken said he became a frequent participant in senatorial conversations with Warren Hatch, John McCain, Dirk Kempthorne, Pat Roberts and others.

“I knew that era the best,” Franken said. “This follow-on era, I work mostly with committees but I do know quite a few of the senators. I’m quite sure I go to Washington without training wheels.

“I’ve lived in and out of Washington six times in my career, and that doesn’t mean I’m party to the deep state. That means I’m experienced in where I’m going,” he added. “That’s not a bad thing.”

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