Sen. Franken's Remarks to the Duluth Greater Downtown Council
I know that we just marked the end of 2011 – a year lots of people are more than happy to put behind them. Even in Duluth, a place blessed with incredible natural resources and one that has fared relativelywell in the recession, families and businesses are feeling the hurt, and the anxiety.
But I love coming here because it’s so reinvigorating to be around people who do such great work. And as far as I’m concerned, there isn’t a better example than the men and women of the 148th Fighter Wing, winners of the Raytheon Trophy for the top Air Force Flying Unit. People here know what a big deal that is – it’s extremely rare that a guard unit wins that award.
It’s been an honor to get to know some of the service members who do such great work, tofight to ensure that the base here stays in business, and to support the effort to make the 148th an Active Association Unit.
I’m also incredibly excited that Lake Superior College has finally opened its new Health and Science building. This month’s grand opening is a testament to the hard work and dedication of so many in this community who overcame three vetoes by two different governors to get this state-of-the-art facility built.
Here in Northern Minnesota, doctors, nurses, and researchers are doing great things to improve the health of our nation – and driving a strong local economy. This facility will help keep that tradition alive, and I congratulate Lake Superior College.
I’m really glad to be here with the Downtown Council tonight. And I’m especially glad to be joined by my son, Joe.
Joe’s named after his grandfather – my dad. Some of you may have heard me tell the story of how Joe Franken the elder moved ourfamily to Albert Lea from New Jersey when I was four years old. He never graduated from high school and never really had a career, as such, but my mom’s father owned a factory out East that made quilting, and gave my dad a chance to open up another plant in Albert Lea.
Well, the factory failed—and we ended up moving to St. Louis Park. Years later, I asked my dad: Why Albert Lea?
He said, “Your grandfather wanted to start a factory in the Midwest. And the railroad went through Albert Lea.”
Uh huh, I said. But why did the factory fail?
“Well, it ran through Albert Lea—but it wouldn’t stop.”
My dad was a great guy, but just a terrible, terrible businessman.
My son is also a great guy. But I have reason to believe he will be a significantly better businessman. If you’ll excuse some fatherly pride here, Joe is currently getting his masters’ in mechanical engineering AND in business – at the same time.
I don’t say that to embarrass him. Well, not just to embarrass him.
Joe’s here tonight because he and I are on a manufacturing tour around the state. And I thought it would be mutually beneficial – one, I can brag on my son the mechanical engineer and, two, he can teach me to ask good questions. And, of course, three, he can see all the great facilities around the state like Cirrus here in Duluth.
But since I just finished bragging on my son – and I hope I didn’t embarrass him – I wanted to start by talking about the path from Joe Franken, the unsuccessful quiltingmagnate, to Joe Franken, the budding future auto magnate. Not to embarrass you.
When the quilting factory failed, we moved up to the Minneapolis suburbs. My dad got a job as a printing salesman. We lived in a two-bedroom, one-bath house in St. Louis Park. We weren’t rich—but we were secure.
I felt like the luckiest kid in the world. And, you know what? I was.
My brother and I had opportunities my parents never had – we were the first in our family to go to college. And we’ve done well. Joe and his sister Thomasin had even more and better opportunities. Now she’s running the after-school programs for three Washington, D.C. public elementary schools, and Joe you’ve already heard about. And I don’t need to embarrass him any more.
Now, this isn’t just a story about the Frankens. It’s a story about this country – about the very idea of the middle class, where each generation works hard, plays by the rules, and builds something new for thenext one.
And the key to this story was a promise of economic security. Growing up middle-class in my day meant there would be jobs for dads and moms that put food on the table, good schools and safe communities to grow up in, and the opportunity for any kid in America to get a great education andthen go off and be a comedy writer and then a Senator. In that order.
These were good times for the middle class, and thus for the country.
Between 1947 and 1977, we experienced three decades of incredible growth—growth that flowed to the middle class.
And as we grew, we grew together. Everyone benefited. Wages for the top fifth of workers grew by 99 percent, and the wages of those in the bottom fifth rose by 116 percent. I know that’s hard to believe. The wages of the bottom fifth grew more than the wages of the top fifth. Really. That happened.
Meanwhile, the middle class could afford to buy more, so there was more demand—and that meant there were more jobs, and that meant more people were paying taxes, and that meant the government was able to do something to help those who were on theoutside of the middle class looking in.
Because, you see, the other thing about the middle class back then was that we thought it should be accessible to anyone. My family was lucky. Others weren’t. But we strengthened the social safety net because we thought those families should be able to aspire to the middle class, as well.
Which brings me to my wife Franni, who grew up in one of those families that wasn’t so lucky. When she was seventeen months old, her dad—a decorated veteran of World War II—died in a car accident, leaving my future mother-in-law widowed at age 29 with five kids.
That family made it because of Social Security survivor benefits.
Every single one of the four girls in Franni’s family went to college, thanks to Pell Grants and other scholarships. My brother-in-law, Neil, went into the Coast Guard, where he became an electrical engineer. Neil, by the way, is probably the second-most important man in my son’s life. He’s been a mentor to Joe. During the summers, Joe would go up to Maine and work on cars with his Uncle Neil.
My mother-in-law got herself a $300 GI loan to fix her roof, and used the money instead to go to the University of Maine. She became a grade school teacher and taught poor kids, and so all her loans were forgiven.
She and all five of those kids became productive members of society. They pulled themselves up by their bootstraps—but first, they had to have the boots. And the government gave Franni’s family the boots.
So, my son Joe’s story is a story about the security his dad’s family enjoyed and the opportunity his mom’s family was able to find. It’s a story you might recognize from your own family, and from families you know here in Duluth.
But sometimes, it feels like a story about the past. Our economy is still struggling to emerge from a devastating recession. Too many families like the one I grew up in are finding that “middle class” doesn’t mean what it used to. Parents with graduate degrees are wondering how they’re going to be able to pay for their kids’ college – or even how to make the next car payment.
And families like the one Franni grew up in are feeling shut out of the middle class entirely. The dream of economic security is just that – a dream – and the reality is that one wrong step, one job lost or outsourced, one accident or illness can mean the floor falls out from beneath you.
That’s why Job One for me – and, I believe, for any elected official who really hears what their constituents are saying – is to get this economy back where it should be and put our nation back on a path to a new era of middle-class prosperity.
It’s about cutting spending – without shortchanging the programs that working families rely on for their economic security at a time when that security is hanging by a thread.
It’s about keeping taxes low for small businesses and the middle class – without giving in to the fallacy that we can solve our budget problems without asking everyone, especially those who have been the most successful, to share in the sacrifice.
And, most of all, it’s about recognizing that we can’t get out of this economic hole just by cutting spending or raising revenue – although we have to do both. We also have to grow our way out.
Today, our national debt is 93 percent of our GDP. That’s scary. But after World War II, our debt was 121 percent of our GDP. To be fair, we had something to show for it—we had won World War II.
But the things we did to build the middle class – investing in infrastructure, building a powerful manufacturing sector, even strengthening the safety net to keep working families afloat – these things are how we grew our way out of that hole.
We did it by investing in our country—and when that investment paid off with more growth, more jobs, and thus more tax revenue, we re-invested that revenue right back into our country. Actually, we also invested in Europe with the Marshall Plan.
But we invested in our own infrastructure, building 40,000 miles of freeways that greatly reduced the cost of transporting goods.
We invested in innovation. We sent a man to the moon. Actually, a number of them. And out of the space program came all sorts of useful technologies—from personal computers to satellite telecommunication technology—that spawned entire new industries.
And we invested in education—everything from the GI Bill to a new focus on science that was inspired by the space race.
In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik. Suddenly, the Soviets had nuclear weapons and were ahead of us in space. Americans were terrified.
I was six when Sputnik was launched. My brother, Owen, was 11. My parents sat us down in the living room in St. Louis Park and said: “You boys are going to study math and science to beat the Soviets.”
Now, I thought that was a lot of pressure to put on a six-year-old.
But we were obedient sons. And so Owen and I studied math and science, and enjoyed it. And, wouldn’t you know it, my parents were right. We beat the Soviets. Owen and I beat the Soviets. You’re welcome.
So here we are, in another hole. But we know how to do this. We have to invest in our country again. We have to build again. We have to make stuff again. We have to make the economic security of middle class families a national priority again, not just because it’s the right thing to do for people who are struggling to survive today, but because it’s the only way to help the next generation thrive tomorrow.
That’s why Joe and I are spending this week learning about what’s next for Minnesota’s manufacturing sector.
When you talk to Minnesota manufacturers, the number one thing they say is holding them back is that we don’t have the workforce to perform the manufacturing jobs of the 21st century.
In fact, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, or DEED, did asurvey of manufacturers in our state, and found that nearly half had positions going unfilled because they lacked qualified applicants.
And, to be clear, these jobs require advanced training. These aren’t your grandfather’s manufacturing jobs. They are high-tech precision manufacturing jobs like operating a CNC machine – that’s Computer Numerical Control. These jobs require critical thinking, problem-solving, and what are known as STEM skills – science, technology, engineering, and math.
STEM skills are practically mandatory for any worker looking to succeed in the 21st century economy. Eighteen of our state’s 20 fastest-growing industries require them. And there are thousands of these jobs available right now.
There are some communities around the state that are on top of this. Alexandria Technical and Community College is ranked eighth in the nation among two-year schools. It provides high school graduates with training in industrial arts. And the college partners with the high school to run an industrial arts summer camp, bringing in people from Douglas Machine to help recruit kids and get them excited about learning these skills.
That’s why Douglas County is the Silicon Valley of packaging machines. And it’s part of the reason unemployment there is more than a full point lower than the statewide average.
Across the state, 16 area Workforce Investment Boards are overseeing 49 workforce centers where workers who have lost their jobs are being retrained in the skills they’ll need to find new ones. These boards are run by businessmen and women. And why? Because they’re the ones who need a workforce capable of handling these jobs!
I’m fighting for increased funding for job training programs – funding that has actually been cut.
And I successfully fought to improve support for STEM education in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that we just passed through the education committee.
The men and women who will hold these advanced manufacturing jobs in the coming years and decades will carry on a middle-class tradition that stretches back to World War II, a tradition in which anyone can put in a good day’s work and earn a paycheck that allows them to participate in their community. That’s good for every business, because even if you aren’t in manufacturing, these are your customers whose livelihoods are at stake. These are the folks who are coming downtown and powering this community. And I’m really looking forward to this tour.
It’s the best part of my job, even when Joe isn’t with me.
You know, when you first start running for office, you tend to spend a lot of your time talking to people in your own political party. That’s just how it works, I guess. You have to earn your party’s nomination, get supporters energized, raise money, get out the vote all that. And I had a lot of fun running for the Senate.
But being a Senator is even better, and here’s why: When you’re in office, you talk to everyone. And not only do I get to talk to both Democrats and Republicans, I usually don’t even know who’s who. And I don’t care. I don’t ask. People don’t feel it’s important to bring up. We’re all on the same team.
Right now, our team has a lot of challenges to face. Our economy still isn’t where it should be, and although it’s heading in the right direction, it’s heading there way too slow.
But as we go into 2012, I can’t help but feel we have a lot to be thankful for, and optimistic about. Yes, we’re in a tough spot. But we’ve gotten out of worse.
And, yes, Washington is a frustrating place to work. But when I come back to Minnesota, and I see big businesses and small businesses and labor and community leaders all pulling in the same direction, I know we’ve got bright days ahead. The “Go Downtown, Grow Downtown” initiative is just one example of the kind of innovative projects being done to get our economy back on track and keep our urban cores vibrant.
I’m glad to be here tonight. I’m looking forward to spending some time with you, and with your fellow business leaders here in Northern Minnesota. And I’m committed to bringing your ideas and concerns back with me to Washington so that I can keep fighting to open up new opportunities and make things better for working families across the state. Thank you!