Tom Harkin prefaces any discussion of his retirement with an emphasis that it will be a “running handoff,” meaning that he intends to stay active up until he leaves the Senate in January 2015 as Iowa’s most senior Democrat.
“I have a whole Congress here to work with, and I intend to be very active,” Harkin says. “I’m passing this torch running, not sitting down.”
After 40 years in Congress, the current chairman of the powerful Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee says he wants to spend his last two years on Capitol Hill focusing on legislation protecting Americans’ retirement security, as well as efforts to improve education, opportunities for the disabled and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Elected to the House in 1974 and to the Senate in 1984, Harkin announced Jan. 26 that he won’t run for re-election in 2014. He is 73 and would be 81 at the end of another term.
He leaves an impressive reservoir of good will in the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid called him “a pillar of the Senate.” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York called him “one of the Senate’s most respected progressives.” Rep. Dave Loebsack called him “my political hero,” and Rep. Bruce Braley said his retirement was “a huge loss for the people of Iowa.”
Harkin says he had been considering a retirement announcement since the November election and more seriously in late December and early January. The news touched off a firestorm of speculation about his successor, with a particular focus on Braley — so much so that Braley issued a statement saying he will “carefully weigh” a Senate run to replace Harkin.
On Friday, during a taping of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” show, Harkin said he was certain the 2014 Senate race in Iowa “will be hotly contested” given that the state is evenly divided and very competitive between Democrats and Republicans. He said he would support his party’s nominee unless the candidate is someone with a significantly different political philosophy.
“I think our party in this state is strong. We proved it in just the last election,” he said. “I think as long as the Democrats pick a good, smart, savvy individual who knows how to organize a campaign and can raise the money, I think we have every reason to believe that that person can hold onto this Senate seat.”
Also during Friday’s taping, Harkin said he has not decided what will happen to the nearly $3 million he has in his campaign war chest now that he has decided not to seek a sixth term.
He said he has asked his staff to find out what the parameters are for the campaign money he has raised but not used.
Q. The Gazette published an online question for readers after your announcement, asking what your legacy will be. What’s your answer to that?
“I have to preface this by saying I’m not out the door yet. I’ve got two more years, and I’ve got some really interesting things I’m working on — pensions, education, disability issues. So I’ve got a full two-year plate ahead of me. But I’d have to say for my legacy, probably the one bill that I championed and was the chief sponsor of is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which I worked very hard on in the ’80s and got it signed into law. It has literally changed the face of America in terms of transportation, buses, curb cuts, accessibility in new building designs and communications. It’s just opened the door for a lot of people with disabilities to have a more full life.”
Q: The Gazette also posted a question online about who your successor should be. What do you think?
A: “I have studiously avoided trying to point to someone because I don’t want to be in any position of trying to tell Iowa Democrats who they have to pick. I intend to be actively involved, but it’s not my position to pick my successor. Certainly one name I hear bandied about a lot is Congressman Braley. He’s been very active, and as a veteran myself, I can say the work he’s done on behalf of veterans has been outstanding. I know he’s reaching out already. I encouraged him to do so. But there may be others.”
Q: Many of your Senate colleagues in recent years have announced their retirements by citing the dysfunctionality of the Senate as a primary reason. Did that have anything to do with your decision?
A: “I can honestly say, ‘No.’ I told my caucus that you won’t see me bashing the Senate or denigrating it or saying I’m angry at it or that it’s dysfunctional. I love the Senate. Sometimes it can be frustrating. But all in all, it’s still a place where if you want to get good things done for this country, you can still do that as long as you’re able to work with people.”
Q: Besides the ADA, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
A: “In 1975, as a freshman member of the House, I offered an amendment to the foreign aid bill that no one thought had a chance, but it did, and it succeeded. It’s now Section 116(d) of our Foreign Assistance Act, and it set up a human rights framework for conditioning our foreign aid. It’s been law since it was signed in 1976 by President Ford. I followed it up with an amendment on military aid a year later, and since then we’ve always had human rights reports on different countries. It has led to more focus on violations of human rights around the world.”
Q: What are your biggest regrets?
A: “I was unsuccessful in getting the Senate rules changed to do away with filibusters as a way of stopping legislation. And I introduced a bill in 1996 that I’ve never been able to get through that has to do with equal pay for women. There are a whole group of jobs in America that are considered women’s work, and even though they require the same effort and responsibility, women are paid less than men. Iowa has had a law requiring equal pay since 1983, and I’ve been trying to get it going nationwide.”
Q: There’s been controversy surrounding your and your wife’s lobbying for the Harkin Institute at ISU. You have said before that you would address it. What would you like to say?
A: “Nothing at this time, because it has nothing to do with this announcement. But I do want to point out two things: No. 1, I did not go to Iowa State seeking this. They came to me. Secondly, I’ve always tried to do my best for Iowa State, but I simply cannot be a part of any arrangement that restricts full and unfettered academic freedom at this institute. And quite frankly, that has not been forthcoming from Iowa State. So I cannot leave my papers at any institute that is going to put restrictions on what can be published or studied.”
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say to the people of Iowa?
A: “Thank you for the support through all these years. Iowans have always been kind to me and my wife and my family. I love this state. Here’s a poor kid from Cumming, Iowa, whose father had a sixth-grade education and whose mother was an immigrant and who never in his wildest dreams would have thought that I could ever be a congressman or senator. And yet to be able to have served in this position for all these years, all I can do is thank the generosity of my fellow Iowans.”
Gazette Des Moines reporter Rod Boshart contributed to this report.