Mike Franken is a blunt-talking, common-sense candidate for U.S. Senate, the likes of which Iowa Democrats have not seen since Harold Hughes left public life in 1975. 

Hughes spent six years as Iowa’s governor and six more in the U.S. Senate, during the most tumultuous political period of my life, until now.

Franken, 62, was 17 years old when Hughes left the Senate, and I doubt the two ever met, although both grew up surrounded by Republicans on dirt-poor farms in northwest Iowa.

After working three years in a pork packing plant, Franken graduated from the University of Nebraska in engineering. Then he did what a surprising number of Nebraska engineering graduates did: He joined the Navy, where he spent 40 years, rising to the rank of vice admiral. 

Franken is, as far as I can tell, the only three-star admiral Iowa ever produced. He also notes: “I’m the most senior military officer to ever run for a congressional seat in the history of this country.” 

I met Iowa’s admiral last October in the home of a Republican friend who lives south of Roosevelt High School. My friend had invited a small group of Republicans and Democrats to meet Franken and learn about his run for the U.S. Senate.

The first question was: “Where are you on Roe vs. Wade?”

“It’s the law, and I really prefer that question be answered by the women in the room,” Franken began, but he quickly added: “In the Senate I would vote to maintain Roe vs. Wade,” as well as  funding for Planned Parenthood. “So little of its funding is about abortion,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you?”

Gun control? 

It should be “common sense,” he said, but since that hasn’t worked he suggested “guerilla tactics.”

“If there is a shooting, everybody gets sued. Make it so uncomfortable at the local level, at the municipal level, at the block level at a business level that people rise up. … Unsheathe your sword and go after it.”

He went on to recommend a gun registration policy that focuses on training and responsibility, like the military does when it disposes of surplus weapons.

“Never have one of those weapons been used in a mass shooting,” he said. 

When climate change came up, Franken noted that he is a scientist, so of course he believes in it. He said that he and others in the military realized as far back as the 1990s that the Department of Defense was the largest producer of carbon dioxide gases in the U.S. government, and he argued “we needed to do our operations differently.”

Franken’s military career, which included a stint as an adviser to Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, taught him how to get along with and respect opponents who hold different views.

“In Washington, D.C., winning with a capital W is a bad, because then someone is losing with a capital L.” he said. “You want to reach an accommodation so that the losers can also tout a victory and it doesn’t become an existential situation.”

Democrats can be “wimpy,” he said. “We’ve got to say this is where we are and this is where we’re going. … Republicans don’t own religion. They don’t own patriotism. They have no birthright to that. It’s everybody’s.”

What about the economically disadvantaged?

“I’d start with an infrastructure bill,” Franken said. “Work on the infrastructure and other things will follow. … Let’s do a rural electrification process for broadband.”

And where would the money come from?

“We spend $750 billion a year on defense. We could spend $150 billion less and improve the efficiency of the military. I know exactly how to do that. And I think the military would be happy that I did it.”

So would Harold Hughes.