Franken focuses on economy, energy during trip through stateWith all the discord in Washington, nothing is better than coming home to the reality of Minnesota, Sen. Al Franken told the Duluth Greater Downtown Council at its annual dinner last Wednesday.
By: Naomi Yaeger, Duluth Budgeteer News
With all the discord in Washington, nothing is better than coming home to the reality of Minnesota, Sen. Al Franken told the Duluth Greater Downtown Council at its annual dinner last Wednesday.
The only thing that makes it better, the Democratic first-term senator said at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center gathering, is to be able to spend some time with his son, Joe, 27. The two Franken men were traveling the state touring manufacturing plants. The younger Franken is studying for an MBA and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which may come in handy to helping explain some manufacturing processes to his dad.
Franken expressed pride in his son in other ways, too. Following a comment by Duluth Mayor Don Ness that his young son, Owen, born almost exactly a year ago, had finally slept through the night, Franken quipped: “Joe sleeps through the night.”
But he quickly got back to business.
“I know we have bright days ahead,” he said, speaking of ideas to boost job creation in Minnesota and throughout the country despite the dire economy and political gridlock in Washington.
An opportunity for the Gopher State is to retrofit public and private buildings to create energy efficiency — savings that will pay for themselves by reducing heating costs in Minnesota winters, Franken said.
Then there is support for the area’s established industries. Earlier in the day, he made a one-hour stop at Sappi Fine Paper in Cloquet, meeting with company leaders and touring a portion of the mill that employs 750 people.
Sappi officials were more than happy to inform Franken of some of the measures undertaken at the Cloquet mill to boost energy efficiency and make the manufacturing process more environmentally friendly.
“A couple of the things we’re especially proud of include our work on energy savings and smell reduction,” said mill manager Rick Dwyer. “One thing about pulp mills is that sometimes you can smell them 40 miles away, but you really can’t smell this one.”
Dwyer told Franken that Sappi would very much appreciate his support in pending legislation to regulate the use of biomass — organic material made from plants — as it is converted into fuel.
“I think it’s insane not to take advantage of it,” Franken said.
“But getting there is the challenge,” Dwyer said.
“That’s part of my job,” Franken said.
He spoke with St. Louis County Commissioner Steve O’Neil about retrofitting ideas Wednesday. The idea is key for the Downtown Council as it tries to keep downtown humming and filling empty buildings.
“Duluth is so reinvigorating for people doing great work,” Franken said.
He praised the new health and science building at Lake Superior College and its commitment to training tomorrow’s workers in the region as a “statement to hard work and dedication” after many vetoes on state funding.
Franken also toured the Cirrus plane manufacturing plant in Duluth on Wednesday.
He will continue the tour with stops in St. Cloud and Waite Park. Earlier this month, he visited sites in Red Wing and Lake City.
Franken spoke humorously and personally at the dinner. He focused on the economy and what it means to be “middle class” these days compared to the three decades after World War II, a period of dramatic national economic growth that he lived through as a child.
“I felt like the luckiest kid in the world,” he said of the security in jobs, good schools and vibrant communities. “These were good times.”
He said the growth in incomes added to tax bases and thus the fuel to build the nation’s infrastructure backbone. The bottom fifth of wage earners from 1947 to 1977 had a greater increase in earnings than the top fifth, he said.
But today, he said, the middle class is struggling. And the safety net for families is failing, he said.
Finding ways to reuse old infrastructure and finding energy savings is only part of the solution, Franken said.
There has to be an investment in education, he said. Talks with business owners and industry experts revealed that more than half of Minnesota manufacturers have job openings they can’t fill, Franken said.
He’s pushing hard for access to what are referred to as “STEM skills,” including science, technology, engineering and math. “They’re mandatory” at most businesses today, Franken said. “Eighteen of the top-25 top-growing industries require them.”
“I’m fighting for increased funding for job-training education,” he said, referring back to creating a healthier definition of middle class. “These are the folks coming down and powering this community,” he said.
Wendy Johnson of the Pine Journal contributed to this report.