As he travels the state on his second run at a US Senate seat, Mike Franken is used to meeting fellow military veterans, and getting peppered with a lot of questions about foreign policy.
It makes sense: A retired US Navy three-star admiral who served for more than three decades, Franken has extensive military and governmental experience, serving under administrations as far back as President Jimmy Carter, and living around the world.
“The interesting thing about the fact that I didn’t live in Iowa all my life is, I saw Iowa from other angles,” Franken said during a weekend campaign swing. He considers running for office an extension of “being in the military, having a continuous idea that I’m always serving something higher than me.”
In Elkader and Fayette, he spoke on his background growing up on a western Iowa farm as the last of nine children, on his service in the Navy, and of serving in legislative and government offices afterward, including as a legislative fellow for Sen. Ted Kennedy.
“I wanted to talk about the political process, how he was gonna get bills passed, and (Kennedy) wanted to talk about being a Navy captain,” Franken said.
Franken’s campaign videos touting that background convinced Ann Hutchens of West Union, who is 85 and a longtime Democratic activist, to vote for him early, even before she met him in Fayette on Sunday.
“I said, ‘I think I’d better come find out if I did the right thing,'” she said. “I think we need new blood to go after Grassley.”
She said she’s looking for a moderate Democrat she hopes could convince her Republican friends to vote against Grassley in November, and thinks Franken’s background can sell him well.
“I have a lot of retired military friends, and they’re Republicans. And of course they say, ‘We can’t vote in the primary for (Franken), so we hope he wins so we can vote in the general (election) for him,'” Hutchens said.
Franken doesn’t necessarily think of himself as a moderate, preferring to say his positions were “somewhat of a jagged line—hard to categorize.”
“For international affairs, I’m certainly pretty progressive. From a business development perspective, I’m aggressive in a different sense,” he said, noting he wanted to “adjust the wage structure in America to better reflect a rising tide for everyone.”
“Health care, I think I could be called ‘progressive’ in that regard, because I want everyone to have the type of health care I have,” he added (the active military and veterans healthcare systems are both operated as single-payer), though he noted the country “need(ed) to work to that.”
But when asked about other progressive Democratic positions, Franken is a bit harder to pin down.
On student loan debt: “I think it’s important to make college more affordable … but I also think we ought to work harder to ensure high school graduates graduate with an education that’s instantly usable in society.”
On Ukraine and putting US troops on the ground: “It’s always a balancing act on how far do you go … The only way the United States, I think, would get engaged is if the nation of Russia used a weapon of mass destruction against a large civilian base population in Ukraine.” (Would that be only nuclear, or chemical weapons as well? “You don’t know at that stage.”)
At separate stops, different people over the weekend asked if Franken had received any money from the National Rifle Association, after 19 children and two teachers were killed in Uvalde, Texas, and what he would do about school shootings.
Neither Franken, nor his Democratic opponents Abby Finkenauer or Glenn Hurst, have received any money from the NRA Victory Fund. (Grassley received $2,500 from the NRA in September, according to campaign finance records.)
Here, too, Franken sees the issue from multiple angles: He grew up hunting and learned the finer points of firearms in the Navy. He said he’s spoken to a company head at gun manufacturer Beretta, which he said wants the same gun control measures that polling shows most Americans want, like universal background checks and other safety measures.
But he’s adamant that President Joe Biden should issue an executive order on “measures to ensure responsible firearm ownership.”
An Executive Order detailing measures to ensure responsible firearm ownership is overdue. Give Congress 120 days to pass legislation, or Ex Order remains in force nationwide. Push that button. Give a Memorial gift to this nation.
— Admiral Mike Franken (@FrankenforIowa) May 30, 2022
“We need to know that you, unarmed, sitting next to someone armed… you should have an understanding that that person has gone through an identified program to show they’re competent at what they’re doing,” he said.
But what if Biden wouldn’t do that? Would Franken vote to end the filibuster so Democrats in the Senate would have the votes to pass gun control measures he’s suggesting? Franken prefers a “put them on the record” approach.
“Let’s identify the other side as where they are by introducing a bill, and (if) they don’t let it come to the floor, then every voter in America needs to know that,” he said. “And they need to know, if the NRA is giving this person money, they’re inimical to the nation.”
Linzy Martin, a precinct captain in Strawberry Point, also already voted early for Franken before seeing him in Elkader on Sunday. He thought Franken, out of the three candidates, wouldn’t “get steamrolled quite so easily” against Grassley. Nonetheless, he was hoping for a few stronger words or policy positions from Franken.
“I would like to see him put up a little bit more of a fight, but he appears to be kind of a calm, laid-back type of individual,” Martin said.
His wife, Hazel Martin, hadn’t quite made up her mind until she saw Franken speak. Now, she says he’ll get her primary vote.
“It’s the common good that I’m looking for,” she said. “He had everybody here listening, and I think he’s gonna have a whole lot more people listening.”
Brian Bruening, the owner of Schera’s in Elkader and chair of the Clayton County Democrats, also hasn’t voted yet. He’s also hosted Finkenauer for an event.
“Electability is always front of mind,” he said.
And which candidate fits that bill?
“I go back and forth,” Bruening said. “Being a Democrat in Iowa really makes you question what’s most important for you in a candidate.”
In Waterloo on Monday, Franken donated one of his former military camouflage uniforms to the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum in Waterloo, noting it was one of several he was planning to donate to Iowa museums.
He related a story of his father’s World War II ship being bombed, and his own father being declared missing in action for several days until family got letters home from him, saying he’d been picked up by another ship. More than 70 years later, his son would be the first director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, in 2015.
“These are serious times, and people want serious candidates,” he said.
By Amie Rivers
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