Having spent nearly 40 years in the Navy, there isn’t much that Vice Admiral Michael Franken hasn’t done. But, as of August, he’s pursuing another new experience: running for the U.S. Senate.
“It’s just like running a small business,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t advise most 61-year-olds to do such a thing, but for me, it was the right thing to do at the right time.”
Running as a Democrat, Franken joins Kimberly Graham, Theresa Greenfield and Eddie Mauro for the chance to face Republican senator Joni Ernst, who is running for her second term in the 2020 race.
His first political experience came through work for senator Ted Kennedy, starting in 1996, as a military fellow. Kennedy took a liking to Franken, as Kennedy had a soft spot for the Navy, given his family’s background.
Running for office is a big change of pace for the man who made strides to be apolitical while serving. Franken said during his career in the Navy, he never allowed himself to vote for president, believing it unseemly to vote for his own boss.
He described himself as never having truly aligned with any political party, but he chose to run as a Democrat because he found that party to be more flexible.
As for positions and beliefs, Franken said he’s against special interest groups and thinks the country’s top 1 percent has been overly advantaged.
“I’m not talking about giveaway programs; I’m just talking about fairness,” Franken said. “As I hearken back to the farmers I work for who could make a living on 160 acres and make a perfectly good living, that doesn’t exist in Iowa any more. I don’t think it does. Why is that?”
For them and small business owners, Franken thinks part of the answer is that things have been stacked against them.
He’s also made addressing climate change a priority in his campaign.
“I think I can provide realistic answers to both sides of the equation having to deal with climate and the climate crisis, to ensure that it’s a balanced approach that doesn’t sacrifice the future of this state for the whimsy of a few,” Franken said.
Franken is also motivated by making health care more readily accessible.
“We should have universal medical care in this country,” Franken said. “Now, how that is provided, I don’t really care to get into that. It’s rather complicated. But cradle to grave, medical care should be a given.”
Franken has roots in this area, and he’s seen many familiar faces as he came back to Sioux Center for a few quick stops before continuing on to a planned event at the Clay County Fair in Spencer.
He grew up in Lebanon, the place where his father started up his own implement repair business after returning from service in the Navy in World War II.
Franken, the youngest of nine children, attended grade school within the Sioux Center Community School District, graduating from Sioux Center High School in 1976.
After graduating high school, he went on to attend Morningside College in Sioux City, pursuing a degree in biochemistry. In his sophomore year, his brother was having a great time as a pilot in the Navy. Franken also had three brothers-in-law in different branches of the military.
“I had that tugging to do my part, to do my service,” Franken said. “It’s kind of a familial thing.”
At first, he intended to join the Air Force, but when he went to their offices, the recruiter wasn’t in. So, he walked to the Navy recruiter’s office instead and signed up. The year was 1978.
“They said they’d be happy to have me,” Franken said. “They were going to give me a full ride in college, and I was all about that. I was going to get to do exactly what I wanted in the Navy. I figured for a four-year stint, this was a good thing if they were going to pay for my college and I didn’t have to work at Sioux-Preme every weekend, like I was doing at the time.”
It took him three weeks to build up the courage to tell his mother about his new plans.
He never intended to make the Navy his career, however.
Franken ended up graduating from the University of Nebraska with a degree in civil engineering and another degree in finance, graduating in 1981.
“After my first tour of duty when I could have gotten out, they dangled graduate school in front of me,” Franken said. “It was going to be a technical graduate school, and I thought that would look good to have the college of physics on my resume.”
So, off he went to California to go to the Naval Postgraduate School, followed up with some more sea duty. Upon finishing school, he did well enough that he had many options ahead of him.
He successfully put himself up for consideration to work as an admiral’s executive assistant.
As time went on, more opportunities for advancement appeared, and Franken kept taking them.
By the time he retired in 2017, Franken had traveled the world, having visited more than 100 countries and lived in countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. Due to his job, a lot of time has been spent in the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, he’s conducted a number of special operations and led U.S. forces fighting against piracy and terrorism in Africa.
“I had personnel stretching from Mauritius in the east to Liberia in the west. That’s roughly the equivalent distance of New York to Pearl Harbor,” Franken said. “I had Army, Air Force, civilians, development people building hospitals, buildings schools, drilling wells, laying roads, chasing terrorists, mediating peace between countries. We built out South Sudan and established a new country.”
One point of pride in his work in Africa is the effective response to a sudden rise in piracy around 2010.
“Using a multilateral approach on land and on air and on sea, we went to zero piracy a mere 18 months later,” he said.
He also still remembers his vote as a captain against Pentagon plans to invade Iraq in 2002. The George W. Bush administration had Pentagon officials meet to vote on one of three plans for the invasion of Iraq, but he was against any of the plans presented.
“I was told early on in my career by a very dear man that I should believe my instincts above what others tell me,” Franken said. Although he agreed that some sort of response might be necessary, “I used my instincts to say that the invasion of Iraq was perhaps ill timed. I was against the Gulf War before it was vogue to do so.”