US Senator Al Franken came to speak with Providence locals and students this past Friday at Thayer Street’s Blue State Coffee Shop. The Democrat-affiliated senator from Minnesota answered questions about his Appropriations Bill, student loans, and the controversy surrounding the NSA.
Al Franken – born Alan Stuart Franken in 1951 – may be the only US senator to have not just one, but seven Emmy nominations and three Emmy wins under his belt. Franken, who was raised by middle-class parents in Minnesota, was a writer and performer for the hit show Saturday Night Live from its inception in 1975 to 1980, and then again in 1985 through 1995. He began his Q+A by telling the large crowd at Blue State, “being a senator is not as fun as working at SNL, but it’s a great job.”
One of the most poignant topics covered in the hour-long chat was Senator Franken’s Mental Health in Schools Act, which would ensure that schools provide access to critical mental health treatment for kids who need these services. Senator Franken explained that after the Sandy Hook tragedy, it is crucial that we examine the roots of the problem and not just focus on gun control. He visited several school districts where all employees – bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors, etc. – were trained to recognize the signs of mental illness, which in turn allows students and their families to have access to community mental health services. Senator Franken’s bill, as described on the Senator’s web site, “would authorize funding for grants to schools and community mental health centers to work with community-based organizations to expand access to mental health services for students.” The bill would eventually include a gun amendment, which “didn’t go anywhere,” but the Senator was pleased to report that in the process of re-authorization, the bill did receive money. He described the bill’s success as “kind of a victory.”
Midway through the Q+A, Senator Franken’s inner comedian shone through when a group of Blue State patrons entered through the front door, unaware of the event being held. “Surprise!” the Senator cried: “It was your birthday a while back and strangers got together to wish you a surprise, belated happy birthday.”
With regard to student loans, the Senator spoke enthusiastically about his desire to increase Federal Pell Grants, which usually are awarded only to undergraduate students who have not earned a bachelor’s or a professional degree. (Fun fact: the Pell Grant is named after US Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island – yes, the infamous Clay Pell’s grandfather). Senator Franken suggested our country’s skill gap is a large contributor to our debt. He said that perhaps not everyone is destined for four years at a liberal arts college, and should instead consider specializing in a particular field to improve the chances of being hired post-grad.
One attendee asked the Senator how students could get involved in government when they do not agree with either side’s platforms. Senator Franken suggested that our generation work to undo Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that essentially allowed corporations and individuals to contribute unlimited amounts of money to election campaigns (you can learn more about the alleged detriments of Citizens United here). On a more hopeful note, he added, “We need to have a little bit of optimism about America and understand that we’re not a different country than we used to be.”
The next question for the Senator was if he thought that our surveillance state had reached the power of a totalitarian state. Senator Franken, who is on a judiciary committee that discusses private technology and the law, said that there are certain advances in technology that worry him. That said, he trusts US government’s motives and actions: “Do I worry that people I know in the NSA are doing what you fear? No. They’re trying to protect us from terrorists.” He added that the important question to ask is, “What kind of architecture can the federal government have in place where we can feel that our civil liberties and privacy aren’t in danger?”
Senator Franken concluded by talking about the state of our health care system, about which he said, “We haven’t been doing health care, we’ve been doing sick care. We’ve been incentivizing the wrong things.” He explained that doctors work to cure those who are already ill, but that there needs to be more focus on sustaining the health of the healthy. Senator Franken concluded the Q+A by saying: “The big thing is Medicare. Social security is algebra. Medicare is calculus.”