Keith Franke wears a tiny earring in his left ear, collects comic books and spent a decade riding his bike everywhere because he lost his license after a fourth drunken driving arrest.
He’s also a Republican legislator who represents a working-class southeast metro district that includes St. Paul Park, where he was mayor before he was elected to the House in 2016.
The 201 Minnesotans in the Legislature tend more toward buttoned-up Protestants from the worlds of law, real estate, insurance or government work. Franke sticks out; he’s a man who has felt the cold concrete floor of a jail cell after his longing for a drink or a snort overwhelmed his longing to stop.
“You don’t have to be defined by your past,” said Franke, who owns the Park Cafe, where regulars holler a friendly hello, as well as a bar across the street in downtown St. Paul Park.
Franke, who will be sober 20 years in February, said he wants to use his particular expertise — as a defendant and a recovering addict — to help colleagues understand the criminal justice system and addiction and to improve the results the state gets for the many millions it spends on substance-abuse programs.
“I’m scared … just talking to you right now because I’m outing my life,” Franke said. “But I think it’s something I need to do because I want to give people hope.”
Franke has not hidden his background, but he has not previously talked about it with the media.
The partying life
Franke didn’t have much hope as a young man. His family took a rough slide downward after his dad lost his job at a local meatpacking plant and their comfortable house in Cottage Grove before moving to St. Paul Park.
“It was literally across the train tracks,” said Franke.
In high school, Franke worked three separate restaurant jobs, where the partying life was endemic.
“It just becomes part of the thing,” he said.
One night, Franke and a pal were drunk, and they broke into a house. They stole a game system, a VCR and some other stuff. His getaway driving, with headlights off, caught the attention of a police cruiser. When he got out of the car at the officer’s request, a beer can dropped to the ground.
Thus began a pattern: court-ordered treatment, work and play hard in restaurant kitchens, get his license back, screw up again.
Franke liked his booze, and the other stuff, too … coke and meth.
Finally, after the birth of his daughter in 1997, he had a foxhole conversion.
“I had a brief conversation with God one day and had a little breakdown,” he said. “Me and God made a deal … I hold up my end of the bargain and he’ll show me the way. It’s kept me going.”
He went into treatment and got a job at Park Cafe. He rode his bike up the hill to his Narcotics Anonymous meetings four or five times a week.
The sober days piled up like little stacks of emotional currency.
Before long, the owner said he wanted to retire and gave Franke a chance to buy the place. His parents let him use their house as collateral for a loan.
‘Listen more and talk less’
Park Cafe regulars get there at 5 a.m. to drink their first cup of coffee even though Franke doesn’t officially open the place until 6.
In 2005, he bought the bar across the street.
“Bars make good money,” he said. Franke still can’t hang out at a bar — “Cigarettes and coffee. That’s all I got left,” he said — but he cleans up every morning and relies on a trustworthy staff.
When his businesses got off the ground, Franke wanted to get more involved in the community. He unseated an incumbent in the mayoral race in 2011 with a colloquial distillation of conservative philosophy: “My hope is to see it stay the way it is, but a little nicer,” he said of St. Paul Park, which is one of the most industrial suburbs in the region, with a refinery, a mine and a heavy rail presence.
Cottage Grove’s former Mayor Sandy Shiely got to know Franke when he was a volunteer for the Canadian Pacific holiday train, a decorated rail car used to raise money for the local food shelf.
His colorful past is an asset, Shiely said: “I think it’s a big part of what makes him so genuine. He’s experienced so much, and this gives him a tremendous amount of empathy for people.”
Franke, 47, won a House seat in 2016 with very little help from the Republican establishment, which may partly explain his independence — he has little use for the Capitol’s partisan posturing, he said.
“We need to get more people willing to listen more and talk less,” he said.
DFLer Anne Claflin has already announced she will run against Franke in 2018. Her party, looking to make gains in the suburbs, is likely to throw tens of thousands of dollars into unseating him.
Franke, one of whose daughters is a lesbian, has an idiosyncratic issue profile for a Republican: HIV/AIDS prevention, drug treatment and a seat on the Public Safety Committee, where he’s positioned to temper his fellow Republicans’ punitive criminal justice instincts.
He and Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, whose son died from an opioid overdose, will work together on addiction issues this coming session, Franke said.
Franke said he wants to see if the state can be more rigorous in its approach: “Which programs are actually working? Sometimes they become businesses, and it’s a revolving door. Are we getting the best bang for our buck when it comes to taxpayer dollars?”
(The Dept. of Human Services couldn’t estimate how much the state spends annually on treatment programs, a spokeswoman said last week.)
Franke said he can make the cost argument to his Republican colleagues: “If we can knock back addiction, we’re knocking back crime and poverty and saving money in the long game.”
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he’s glad to have Franke.
“It’s moving and impressive what he has overcome,” Daudt said. “And it’s what’s cool about the Legislature: People come from different backgrounds and he brings a different perspective.”
Franke would like to see more people like him in St. Paul. “We have enough lawyers and fancy people,” he said. “We need regular people who have dealt with real-life issues.”
He’s not the only legislator to open up about a troubled past: Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, has spoken about addiction and his own brushes with the law in his younger days.
It was a difficult road, but Franke wouldn’t change it, he said: “Would I be the person I am today if not for these other issues? I don’t know. But I like where I’m at. I like being the person I am inside.”