Staff Columnist

Michael Franken presents a unique choice for Democrats in Iowa's U.S. Senate race

Michael Franken gives opening remarks at the beginning of an online forum for Iowa Democratic candidates for US Senate o
Michael Franken gives opening remarks at the beginning of an online forum for Iowa Democratic candidates for US Senate on Sunday, April 19, 2020, shown in a screenshot of the forum which is available online.

Iowa Democrats have tried candidates from Des Moines, and nominees handpicked by national party leaders. But U.S. Senate candidate Michael Franken is urging them to chart a different course in the June 2 primary.

Yeah, there’s an election coming up. Easy to forget.

“I’m a reasonably unique candidate, a tough target for the Republicans,” Franken told me in a phone interview.

Franken has considerable military experience, retiring in 2016 as a three-star admiral after 37 years of service in the Navy. He commanded ships and operations in Africa, has lived on four continents, worked in legislative affairs and even spent “quiet time with Mr. Grumpy.” More on that in a bit.

Franken, who lives in Sioux City, grew up in the tiny town of Lebanon in Sioux County, population 54. His family of 11, with nine kids, did more than its part to keep the town on the map.

“It was never incorporated. Rand McNally removed it from maps after my mom died. Because I think that squeaky wheel no longer squeaked,” Franken said.

“But it’s still there. The sign still is there. And it’s still home to me,” he said.

So he’s got ample military experience to more than match Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s time in the Army reserves and National Guard. It could come in handy as the world unravels. He’s the lone candidate among five Democrats seeking the nomination who doesn’t live in Des Moines.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“And then she had that pig-squealing thing. I told you about my pig squealing thing,” Franken said.

In high school and college, Franken said he worked in a hog slaughterhouse.

“There wasn’t much of the pig process I haven’t been intimately engaged in,” Franken said.

So Franken and Ernst will, no doubt, have plenty to talk about.

But Franken has to win the nomination, which is a long shot. For one thing, Democratic Senate hopeful Theresa Greenfield is piling up major endorsements from labor unions and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. She also has the most cash. Greenfield is heavily favored to win the nomination.

Also, the primary home stretch is rolling through the middle of a pandemic, so crisscrossing the state to meet voters and press the flesh has been canceled. Franken insists his campaign is using its time and technology wisely, holding virtual, digital events, running TV ads and making direct mail appeals.

“I think May is going to be a great month for the Franken campaign,” Franken said.

And the prize for winning in June is a November contest against Ernst, who will be favored and well-financed. But with the current health and economic crises, Franken argues any candidates “smitten” with a president who mishandled the emergency will be vulnerable.

“I can’t believe the acolytes of Donald Trump will have much to stand on,” Franken said.

Franken retired from the Navy after Trump was elected. He actually expected his naval career to end in 2002, when, as a member of a planning board preparing for the invasion of Iraq, he was the lone member to vote against the invasion plan favored by the White House.

“I thought at the time I’d be put out to pasture. But ultimately I was summoned to be Sec. (Donald) Rumsfeld’s worldwide ops briefer,” Franken said.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“I called it my quiet time with Mr. Grumpy. He’s a superlative intellect, a hard worker and he required full sentences, correctly written,” Franken said. “I was the only person that ever had this ops briefing job who wasn’t fired.”

Franken said his campaign is built on “three pillars,” addressing climate change, health care accessibility and the corrupting influence of unfettered cash flowing into our politics. He believes Ernst is particularly vulnerable on pillar three, pointing to a series of issues where the senator sided with special interest groups over the best interests of her constituents.

But he said economic recovery will be the first order of business for the Senate. Franken thinks the COVID-19 saga presents a chance for our leaders to think differently and long-term on a multitude of issues, from infrastructure and transportation to health care and environmental protection. Going back to the status quo would be a failure of leadership, he contends.

And it’s a chance to reconnect with voters in rural Iowa Democrats have “surrendered,” even as Republicans fail to adequately address problems faced by rural communities.

“As I tell people in northwest Iowa, you’ve got your Steve King, you’ve got your two senators, you’ve got your state secretary of ag, your governor, you’ve even got your guy in Beijing and the White House,” Franken said. “And you’re having problems. What’s wrong with your side? And why are you on that side?”

Democrats have had problems winning statewide elections. It seems likely they’ll once again look to Des Moines and trust national Democrats. But Franken presents a unique alternative, with pig squealing credentials.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.