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Our Best Days Are Ahead: Why I'm Optimistic Even Though Times Are Tough

Remarks of Sen. Al Franken to the St. Paul Rotary Club

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Thank you, Dick [Zhering], for that introduction - and thank you to John Andrews and Sherry Howe for your leadership and for inviting me here today.

This year, we're commemorating the 100th anniversary of the St. Paul Rotary Club - and it's an honor to help you celebrate a century of service and civic participation.

The Rotary Club embodies one simple but important principle: We're all in this together.

Everyone honors the notion of giving back to the community, but it's not just about giving; it's about participating, about being part of something.

You've each worked hard to climb the mountain in your business lives. But you recognize that the role of successful businessmen and women isn't just to sit at the top of the mountain and enjoy the view, but to help pull your neighbors up with you. We're all in this together. And if you fall, your neighbors will help you get right back up.

That spirit has long been part of the great tradition of small businesses and middle class families in Minnesota, and in America.

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I grew up in that tradition.

When I was four years old, my dad moved our family from New Jersey to Albert Lea to open a small business.

My dad had never had a career as such - didn't even graduate from high school, his dad died when he was 16. But my grandfather - my mom's dad - had a quilting factory out East (quilting's the material that's used for the lining of winter coats), and he wanted to open one in the Midwest.

And my dad, despite having no experience as an entrepreneur, saw an opportunity and decided to go for it.

So the Frankens moved to Albert Lea to see if Mid-Continent Quilting would be their ticket to the top.

Now, you will notice that I was not introduced as "Al Franken, heir to the Mid-Continent Quilting fortune." So you might guess that things didn't quite work out the way my dad had hoped.

And, indeed, it took about two years before the factory failed.

Years later, I asked my dad, "Why Albert Lea?"

He said, "Well your grandfather wanted a factory in the Midwest and the railroad went through Albert Lea."

I asked, "So why did the factory fail?"

He said, "Well, it went through Albert Lea - but it wouldn't stop."

My dad was not a great businessman. He was a great guy. But he was not a great businessman.

We moved up to the Twin Cities. My dad became a printing salesman. When my brother Owen and I were able to look after ourselves, my mom got a job selling real estate. They put together enough to buy a two-bedroom, one-bath house in St. Louis Park.

My brother and I went to school, we studied math so we could beat the Soviets, and we watched a lot of TV. My dad and I especially liked Buddy Hackett.

Mid-Continent Quilting didn't make us rich. But Owen and I grew up happy and hopeful, with the same sense of boundless possibility and optimism that led my dad to take a shot on opening a small business - the same one that defines our middle class to this day, the same one that brought America out from some of its darkest hours and into some of its best days in the 20th century.

As I said, my dad was 16 when his dad died. He was 21 when the Great Depression started. He was 33 when we entered World War II. And he was 49 when his business fell apart in Albert Lea. But he and my mom built a good life for us, providing us with opportunities they never had.

Owen and I were the first in our family to go to college. He went to MIT...and became a photographer. I went to Harvard...and became a comedian. You can blame Buddy Hackett. At least, my parents did.

That's the middle class tradition. Work hard, dream big, get right back up when you fall. And even when times are tough, remember that we're all in this together.

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Well, right now, times are really tough for middle class families. And we're all in that together, too. When your neighbor loses his home, the value of yours goes down. When your customers lose their income, your bottom line suffers. And, unfortunately, even though none of us in this room caused the financial crisis, we're all suffering in its wake.

I spend as much time as I possibly can talking with members of Minnesota's business community, and what I hear is a lot of anxiety - not just about how things are now, but about our prospects for getting back on track going forward.

I recently had a long conversation with the owner of a small manufacturing firm right here in St. Paul. This is a family-owned company that has provided good-paying jobs for 60 years, the exact sort of small business that will get us out of this recession. But the owner told me that she simply cannot find the credit she needs to keep the lights on, never mind expand. And so, they may have to shut their doors.

It's incredibly frustrating. These Wall Street bankers didn't offer to share the profits when they gambled with our economic security, but we're all sharing in the consequences.

Meanwhile, we're facing huge deficits and fighting two wars.

But despite all the frustration and the anxiety, I am still optimistic. I'm optimistic about the potential for incredible innovation and real growth right here in St. Paul. I'm optimistic about the prospects for economic recovery in Minnesota. And I'm optimistic about the future of the American middle class tradition.

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After all, we've been in worse spots before. I think about all my dad's generation went through - the Depression, World War II, the threat of nuclear annihilation. And, by the way, we had worse debt relative to GDP after World War II than we have today.

And every time we've been in a jam, we've found a way to rise to the challenge with creativity and determination. And we've prospered by doing so.

I remember how terrified we all were when the Soviets launched Sputnik. But we rose to that challenge. My brother and I were just two in a generation of American kids who focused on math and science education.

And not only did we end up winning the race to the moon, we got a wave of innovations as a result - everything from transistors to hard plastics. And those innovations spawned industries, many of which are still creating jobs today.

The interstate highway system was originally built as a defense project. So was the Internet. Today, they sustain our commerce.

And the things that allowed us to turn crisis into opportunity when I was a kid are still true today.

We still have one of the most productive workforces in the world. And half of the world's skilled immigrants come here to add to that workforce, and to build businesses of their own.

We still lead the world in exploration and discovery, spending more on research and development than anyone else.

And we still lead the world in taking advantage of what we learn, filing 350,000 patent applications a year.

I think the smart money is still on us.

That's why I believe that, when we invest in ourselves, those are smart investments.

I meet with a lot of people as a Senator, and because I work for everybody, when I meet folks around the state, I usually don't know whether they're Democrats or Republicans or Independents - and, frankly, I don't care.

In fact, we almost never talk about politics. We talk about what works and what doesn't work. And one thing I hear a lot is, "Thank you for the Recovery Act."

Now, to be fair, I wasn't in the Senate yet when that passed. You might remember: I got there a little late. But I supported it. Because every day, we see examples of how it's working right here in Minnesota.

Veeco Instruments received $800,000 to help bring its renewable energy technology to market faster. Highway 61 from Hastings is going to be resurfaced and rehabilitated - ahead of schedule. And here in St. Paul - where Mayor Coleman recently announced a new budget with no tax increases - they're hiring 28 new cops.

And as frightening as it can be to contemplate our dependence on foreign oil or the statistics regarding what's happening to our planet, it's hard to look at the climate change issue and not see it as another Sputnik moment.

There is an incredible amount of potential here - not just to address this challenge, but to use it as an opportunity to create new jobs and even entire new industries. For instance, I really believe that Minnesota could be the Silicon Valley of windows, with Marvin Windows, and Andersen Windows, and SAGE Electrochromics all employing thousands of people.

Or look at District Energy here in St. Paul. People outside of Minnesota can't believe it when I tell them how well it's working to meet the energy needs of this community. And I recently teamed up with your member of Congress, Betty McCollum, and Senator Bond, a Republican from Missouri, to introduce legislation that would offer incentives for programs in other cities that use District Energy as a model.

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So, how do we unlock all this potential?

One thing we need to do is to make sure you've got good people to hire. There's a reason why Minnesota is home to more Fortune 500 companies per capita than any other state in the country - it's our great university system and the talented graduates it produces.

When I talk to business owners, I always ask what kind of employees they're looking for, and I always get the same answers: We want employees who think critically, who can work in teams, who can be creative.

Unfortunately, the No Child Left Behind assessments, as presently constructed, don't measure that stuff.

And if our education system isn't preparing today's kids to be tomorrow' workforce, it's just not working.

One of the next big items on the Senate's agenda is the reauthorization of the "No Child Left Behind" law. I serve on the Senate committee that will work on that bill, and I see this as an opportunity to ensure that our schools are graduating people into the workforce with the right skills to be good employees.

The stakes are high for our state: Minnesota is second in the nation in our need for workers with post-high-school education.

I went to the State Fair on Opening Day, and it was "STEM day," organized by the Minnesota Center for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence. "STEM" refers to science, technology, engineering, and math education, and I visited the exhibits, which had hands-on experiments and displays for kids and adults. The jobs of the future will be in STEM fields - and we need to do a better job of making sure our kids graduate from high school with STEM skills.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans are out of work right now and lack the skills to take available jobs. I know that those of you who work in manufacturing would love nothing more than to hire from this community. But we have a skilled worker shortage in manufacturing.

I met with folks at a medium-sized manufacturing company in Norwood Young America. They're looking for a Production & Installation Manager. It's a good job; it pays $60,000 a year. And they can't find qualified applicants.

And the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association told me that, this year, they're short an estimated 200,000 workers in manufacturing.

That's a tragedy at a time of such high unemployment. Worse, machining programs at technical colleges are closing.

We have to decide if we're going to continue to be a country that makes things. And if we are, we have to invest in our workforce.

Which is why we're working to reauthorize the appropriately named Workforce Investment Act, legislation that will fund job-training centers across the country.

One more thing we can do is to make it easier for you to afford those new employees.

I've proposed a bill in coalition with the Minnesota Workforce Council Association that would encourage hiring by effectively subsidizing half of a new employee's wages for a year.

Because it uses the existing workforce system infrastructure like the Ramsey County Workforce Council instead of creating a new bureaucracy, my plan would create jobs more efficiently than a lot of other proposals.

This isn't a tax credit where you pay up front and then wait for months; this is money you get right away.

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Now, look. This bill isn't law yet. In fact, it'll be an uphill battle to make it law. And I know that there's a lot of cynicism about whether Washington can do what it should be doing to help small businesses.

When we come back from recess, we're going to work on - and, I am optimistic that we'll pass - a bill providing incentives for small business owners and investors. It includes a lending fund to help business owners access capital, as well as tax credits to spur growth and hiring.

Now, we could have passed this bill in July. I wish we had. But it got blocked.

Republicans blamed Democrats. Democrats blamed Republicans.

Small business owners don't care who gets the blame or credit; they just want results. And, like I said, I'm optimistic that we'll get this done next time around.

But it's fair to ask why I'm optimistic about getting anything done in that kind of political environment.

Well, here's my strategy. It's called being a Minnesotan.

We have a long and proud tradition of our own, and it's called common sense.

Sure, we elect some colorful characters, and, sure, we elect people who know how to raise a ruckus when it's called for.

But the effective legislators in our state's history - the Humphreys and Durenbergers and, yes, the Wellstones - they all knew that it's not about how loud you can yell but what you can get done for people.

Like everyone else, I had strong feelings about the health care bill. So did my friend Dick Lugar, a Republican from Indiana. And, on the final bill, we disagreed.

But that didn't stop us from working together on a diabetes prevention program that was included in the final law.

Orrin Hatch is a conservative Republican from Utah. I'm...me. And we probably don't agree on a lot. But we do agree that you need good principals in high-need schools. So we got together and wrote a bill that would help high-need schools recruit and train effective principals by providing them with training programs and mentorships with principals who had been successful in similar situations. The idea is to create a pipeline of good administrators who can turn around even the most badly struggling schools. And our bill made it into President Obama's blueprint for the No Child Left Behind re-authorization.

Minnesotans who have come before me set a pretty good example for how to make a difference even in our highly-charged political environment, and I try to follow it every day.

But Minnesotans also set good examples for how to solve problems.

For instance, when I make my argument for my wage subsidy bill, I'm not just going to talk about how well it could work. I'm going to talk about how well it already has.

You see, my bill is a national version of something that Minnesota put in place back in the mid-80s. It was called the Minnesota Emergency Employment Development program, or MEED, and it got 7,400 workers back on the job in its first six months. It went on to create 15,000 permanent long-term jobs.

I'm going to talk about Jim Glowacki. In the mid 1980s, after he lost his job, Jim decided to start his own business-but he had few resources and little ability to borrow money. He used Minnesota's MEED program to hire his first two employees-and now, a quarter of a century later, his company, the JPG Group, employs 17 full time people and has an annual payroll of $800,000.

Here's another example. I've served on the board of the Congressional Hunger Center for 16 years. Hunger isn't an issue that gets its fair share of attention, but it is simply unconscionable that there are 49 million people in this country who don't have enough to eat, including nearly one in four children.

Many parents struggle to pay even the reduced prices for meals at school. And so you see kids skipping breakfast and lunch and then, not surprisingly, having more trouble in school.

But in Minneapolis, they found a way to expand free school meals to students whose parents only qualified for the reduced price.

And that was the inspiration for the Expand School Meals Act, legislation that Keith Ellison is working on in the House and I'm working on in the Senate. It would expand eligibility for free school meals to low-income families in the reduced price category nationwide.

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I bring up hunger because I know it's one of many issues on which you've made a big difference, working with Feed My Starving Children to provide nearly 40 million meals to severely malnourished children in 56 countries around the world.

Alexis de Tocqueville said, "The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens."

And whether it's helping visitors learn more about this great city with your walking tour maps (some of which we have in our office), bringing area students together to learn leadership skills, or simply helping to connect St. Paul with cities around the world through your exchange programs, the Rotary Club provides example after example of reasons to feel good about the health of our democratic society.

By sustaining this tradition, you've given a remarkable gift to the next generation. Statistics show that more and more of our young people are participating in programs like City Year and Teach for America. That spirit of civic participation will sustain the Rotary here in St. Paul and across the country for another century and beyond.

And, I believe, it gives us reason to hope that even as we struggle to deal with this recession in a difficult political environment, the traditions that have made us great will endure.

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My son, Joe, is named for his grandfather. He's in graduate school for engineering and business, because he wants to build things in this country again. I know he's just as great a guy as my dad was. I do hope he's a better businessman.

But I know that he's going to live in an America in which it's still possible to work hard, dream big, and get up when you fall. He's going to live in an America in which you can provide a better life for your kids.

We have hard work to do in the weeks and months and years ahead to rebuild our economic prosperity, address our deficits, change our energy policy, and keep our country safe.

But the things that have made our country so resilient, time and time again, those things are still with us.

And that's why, even on the days when I hear a depressing statistic or a heartbreaking stories of struggle, even on the days when I find myself frustrated with the political system, even on the days when we fall short, I am optimistic.

And when I look at all of you, the work you're doing, and the commitment to the community you're showing - and the partnership I hope we're building - I'm even more confident.

We're all in this together, and if you ask me, that means we're all on the right course.

Thank you.

 

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