Michael Franken, a retired three-star admiral, has announced that he is seeking the Democrat nomination for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Joni Ernst.
Franken grew up near Sioux Center as the youngest of nine children. According to his campaign website, he worked in his early years as “a hired farm hand, welder, construction worker, truck driver, and Dad’s right-hand man in the machine shop,” and from age 17 did “a three-year stint…at Sioux Preme Packing Company to pay for college,” as well as holding “many other jobs from bar manager to math tutor, from a bouncer to a law firm’s civil engineer.”
In the Navy his operational experience was in guided missile destroyers; at the rank of commander, he was the first commanding officer of the USS Winston S. Churchill; as commodore (senior captain) he commanded Destroyer Squadron 28 and Task Group 152.0 for the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group (July 2005-June 2007); as rear admiral he served briefly at the beginning of 2015 as the initial director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency; he was nominated for promotion to the rank of vice admiral, his final rank, about 2½ years before his retirement, in conjunction with his assignment as U.S. Africa Command deputy commander for military operations.
His website has some surprising omissions. The write-up mentions that he earned “a bachelor’s degree in engineering,” but does not state where, despite crediting him with “a master’s degree from the College of Physics at the Naval Postgraduate School and professional studies at MIT, UVA’s Darden School of Business, and the Brookings Institute (sic).” The online biography published by the U.S. Navy, on the other hand, admits in its first sentence that he “graduated from the College of Engineering at the University of Nebraska” (https://tinyurl.com/y4atzljw). Perhaps the failure to mention his undergraduate institution is a mere oversight; possibly, however, Franken did not want to draw attention to the fact that he preferred to go to college in another state.
His website also glosses over the way in which he entered the military: “When military service called it was just supposed to be a short hitch, but it lasted over 36 years.” That makes it sound as if he was drafted, or as if his voluntary service began during a period of hostilities, but an online biography published in Feb. 2017 by Johns Hopkins University, where he gave a lecture shortly before his retirement, (https://tinyurl.com/y3raa685), calls him “a 1981 ROTC graduate.” What he must have meant is that he had intended to stay in the military only as long as required, but instead made it a lifelong career. It is certainly impressive that he went so far, despite not being a graduate of Annapolis.
In an interview with Radio Iowa on the day he announced (26 August), Franken attacked the integrity of the incumbent: “She serves special interests. She doesn’t serve Iowans. Speak of the gun debate, I mean she’s central to what we don’t want on the Hill.” How many genuine Iowans, if they wanted to use a geographical expression to refer to service in the House or Senate, would say “the Hill” instead of “Washington”? He has given the game away; the focus of his study at the Brookings Institution was legislative affairs, part of his Navy career was spent liaising with Congress or, in the words of an online-biography, serving “in multiple congressional and legislative affairs positions in Washington, DC” (https://www.stimson.org/staff/michael-franken#smooth-scroll-top), and he in fact became the chief of Legislative Affairs for the Department of the Navy and served in that capacity from 2012 to 2014; Franken’s perspective, clearly, is that of a Washington insider, not that of an Iowan.
Franken seems to fear the charge of carpetbagging. A headline on his rather rudimentary website proclaims him a “Third Generation Iowan,” and he told Radio Iowa that he “became re-acclimated, re-glued to a place that really never left my heart, my rural upbringing,” after returning to Iowa last spring. I’ve got news for him: he’s got a lot more re-acclimating to do if he thinks Iowans refer to service in Congress as service “on the Hill.” And who remembers Robert D. Ray or Terry Branstad ever referring to himself as an “X-generation Iowan”? For that matter, who ever heard Kim Reynolds or Joni Ernst saying something similar? The person I remember doing it is Fred Hubbell; he liked to talk about being “a fifth-generation Iowan.” A fat lot of good it did him! The only people who talk like that are people who have spent a lot of time out of state. If you call yourself an X-generation Iowan, basically you are saying: “Don’t count it against me that I haven’t spent much time living among you, because my ancestors did.” That reminds me of Daniel Webster, who once apologized to a crowd for not having been born in a log cabin, but added that all his older brothers and sisters had been!
Franken’s rather clumsy attempts to defuse the charge betray his concern. In the abstract, it is possible to imagine a man or woman from Iowa serving several decades in the military, returning to the state thereafter, and then running for office, and nevertheless being accepted as an Iowan rather than a carpetbagger by members of his or her own party in the primary, and then by other Iowans in the general; in this concrete instance, however, there are reasons to think that Franken will have difficulty allaying the suspicion.
It is strange that he describes himself as becoming “re-glued” to Iowa, since he is applying for a job which would have him working out of state, so that he would somehow have to become unglued in order to take up his duties. But that Iowa for him is “a place that really never left my heart” is scarcely to be believed; he left the Navy nearly two years ago, but he did not move to Iowa until this spring; in the meantime, apparently, he was living in the Washington area, since he was a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center, a think tank on Connecticut Ave in Washington, DC, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan policy research center working to protect people, preserve the planet, and promote security & prosperity.”
Time will tell whether Franken is as attached to Iowa as he claims. The article by O. Kay Henderson on radioiowa.com states that “he and his wife bought a house and moved to Sioux City this spring”; more precisely, they bought a condominium for $196,000 in late April, a third-floor unit in downtown Sioux City with only 1,245 SF. That doesn’t sound like a place to which someone would want to be “glued” forever; probably it is intended as a home base for his campaign, and would be put on the market very quickly if he lost either the primary or the general election.
Franken remains the owner of a rowhouse in Alexandria, Virginia; the place is close enough to the Potomac River to spit, and he probably doesn’t have to walk very far from his front door to get a glimpse of the dome over the place he affectionately calls “the Hill”; his plan, presumably, is to live there as a U.S. Senator through the week, and to rough it in Iowa on the weekends and during breaks. Unlike the property in state, he is recorded as the sole owner of the property in Virginia.
The Alexandria property, which has three stories and 3,280 SF above grade, was assessed at $1,054,769 in 2018, but at “only” $935,163 in 2019; he paid $11,918.88 in property taxes last year, and has paid the first installment on a bill of $10,626.14 this year. He purchased the house in late September 2012 for $943,950; the Redfin estimate of its value in August 2019 is $1,089,877; the Zestimate is $1,041,562. Since the property is not currently listed for sale and carries a hefty price tag in property taxes, it is legitimate to conclude that that is the place which Franken considers “home,” and the place which he would keep as his sole residence if his political adventure does not work out as he wishes.
It therefore seems inaccurate, or at least misleading, to say that he and his wife “moved to Sioux City,” since that conjures up a picture of them permanently quitting some other place, and transferring their furniture to the new place as their sole residence; what they did was purchase a second residence, which they must have had to furnish.
It also seems downright dishonest for Franken to suggest on his website that his return to Iowa was closely connected with his retirement from the military: “Shortly after his retirement from the military, Mike moved back home to Iowa and lives in Sioux City.” The Navy biography gives the month and day of his retirement in 2017 as 1 October; the condominium in Sioux City was not purchased until the second half of April in 2019, more than a year and a half later: not at the end of 2017, nor at any point in 2018, nor even at the beginning of 2019.
Franken on his campaign website again falsely implies that a considerable amount of time elapsed between his return to Iowa and the commencement of his campaign. The sentence reporting that he “moved back home to Iowa,” which does not mention either a month or a year, is immediately followed by one dating the start of his campaign to the previous month of the current year: “In August 2019, Mike announced his campaign for the US Senate to continue serving his home state.” Thus the context suggests that his campaign began in a year subsequent to his change of residence, whereas in reality the purchase of the condominium and the release of the announcement-video are separated by just 4 months and 5 days.
In plain English: Franken moved back to Iowa in order to run for the Senate. He left Iowa in the fall of 1976 or 1977 to attend college in a neighboring state, then spent 36 years in the Navy, and then delayed returning for another year and a half to work in an “Environmental Security Program” at a Washington think tank. Contrast him with Bobby Schilling, a Rock Island native who bought land in LeClaire, Iowa, in 2015, and moved there in 2017, but did not announce that he was running for the U.S. House until 2019.
The think-tank profile identifies him as “President of Chartwell Strategic Advisors, LLC, specializing in finding 3-D solutions in Development, Diplomacy and Defense worldwide.” The Bloomberg description of this company assigns it to the financials sector, however, and states that its “line of business includes providing investment information and advice to companies and individuals”; the Alexandria residence is given as the company address; it is recorded as being founded in 2018 and having two employees, one of whom would be Franken himself, and the other his wife, presumably (they are listed as the contacts of the company elsewhere). A website records the company as the recipient, in the 4thquarter of 2018 and the 1stquarter of 2019, of $27,600 in total from the Naval Education and Training Command (https://tinyurl.com/y5cyngln). Perhaps this business never really got off the ground, or perhaps it is something he would resume, or continue, in case his political hopes are dashed; its founding from Virginia in 2018 suggests that Franken was not considering running for the Senate from Iowa in 2020. Since August 2018 he has also been on the Board of Advisors of Safe Ports Holdings, described in a press release as “an expert global solutions provider in logistics and other mission-critical functions for government agencies, NGOs and commercial enterprises.”
In the interview with Radio Iowa, Franken explained his party affiliation as follows: “My precepts of life and fair play and love for my fellow man and empathy aligned me much more closely with the Democratic Party.” How fortunate for him that his high moral principles did not preclude him from monetizing his naval contacts! It will be interesting to learn whether he plans to release his tax returns, and to see what “love for my fellow man and empathy” means, in dollars and cents, in terms of charitable contributions, for surely a fellow with so much virtue, and two residences, one of which is valued at over $1 million, would have a very long record of charitable contributions to his credit.