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Political Mercury

‘If not me, who?’ former admiral asks in Senate campaign


As a western Iowan who worked in two packing plants, grew up the son of a teacher and machinist and served decades in the Navy, Ret. Adm. Mike Franken sees himself as the sort of independent-minded — and branded —  Democrat who can cut through GOP-leaning tribalism in a statewide race.

Franken, 64, a product of Sioux Center who now lives in Sioux City after decades of globetrotting in the military, is the latest Democratic candidate to announce for the U.S. Senate seat the long-time Republican Sen. Charles Grassley is defending in 2022.

“If not me, who? So I offer myself to the Iowa voter,” Franken said in a recent phone interview.

The challenge for Democrats in Iowa is enormous, acknowledged Franken, who says a path to victory largely runs through independent voters and a limited number of Republican crossovers in addition to maintaining the Democratic base.

Most Republicans in the era of Trump aren’t reachable to any candidate with a “D” after their names on ballots, he said. Franken said 80% of the GOP has locked itself in with Trump.


“I perhaps will not get an audience with them, certainly not that traction I would desire,” Franken said. “Now, they wouldn’t disagree with what I had to say. They wouldn’t disagree with what brought me here today. They wouldn’t disagree with my rural upbringing, how I made my way in this world, my qualifications for office, the sacrifices we’ve made to get here. But they are almost tribal to their sworn allegiance to this person with whom they have nothing in common. Let’s be honest about that. Zero in common. I will get an audience with the independents of this state.”

Independents who have voted for Grassley will be likely to see Franken as a “reasonable substitute” for the sitting senator, albeit one with a fresh perspective, Franken said.

“Like many Americans, I feel the political dysfunction is rather stark, and I think we need people who are not so entrenched in the past and sided with where they are amongst the party politics that they can’t do what’s best for their citizenry,” Franken said.

Franken said he doesn’t have a 60-year legacy of votes as Grassley does. Grassley has served in elective office in Iowa since 1959, having been elected to the Iowa House during the Eisenhower administration.

“He’s rather strayed from his principles,” Franken said. “I pride myself being a person of principle. I think ultimately that’s a central Iowa value. I think that would be the thing that sets us apart the most.” 

Franken, who commanded 24 ships during his time in the Navy and lists policy and Capitol Hill experience on his resume, said he can confront Republicans with a “high level of morality and sensibility.”

“I think what’s not spoken enough is leadership,” Franken said. “You’ve got to have a commanding influence on individuals.”

Under former Republican Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Franken put together an organization to assist with finding POW/MIAs.

“It’s humming along now,” he said.

Franken said he can help bridge the rural and urban divide in Iowa. He also wants to elevate actions to eliminate malnourishment, improve child care and boost education.

“I’m a product of public education,” Franken said. “I don’t understand why teachers don’t have that same level of respect in society that they had when I grew up. You define your value by what you pay people. Their pay has remained stagnant.”

Then there is his agriculture background.

Franken worked for packing plants in Sioux City and Sioux Center in his school years. He was a 19-year-old foreman at the Supreme hog-kill plant near his hometown.

“When I was in college, I didn’t go to South Padre Island for holiday; I went to the chitlins table,” Franken said. ♦

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.

One Comment

  1. Ron Sinnwell says:

    I am one independent voter who noticed Mr. Franken when he debated the other Democratic challengers to Senator Ernst. In my opinion, he was by far the best candidate, and I believe he would have defeated Senator Ernst. The party really missed the boat when they tossed their support behind their candidate, whose name I can’t even remember. They are poised to do the same thing this time, having already anointed Abby Finkenhauer, who could not retain her seat in a democratic leaning district. Expecting her to compete in our heavily Republican state is a big mistake. One they should have learned the last time.

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