ANKENY — Two of the state’s best-known and longest-serving politicians shared a table and some private conversation for two hours Thursday afternoon at the Ankeny campus of Des Moines Area Community College.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin and Republican Gov. Terry Branstad sat side by side during a forum about helping disabled individuals find work.
The meeting came the day after Harkin’s vote in Washington, D.C., on a package to raise the debt ceiling and end the partial government shutdown that ran for more than two weeks.
“I’m excited the government shutdown is over and the senator is back in Iowa,” said Branstad, who throughout the shutdown was critical of both congressional Republicans and President Barack Obama. “Just in the nick of time.”
Harkin is retiring from the Senate next year, giving up a seat he has held since 1985. Branstad, who served as governor from 1983 to 1999 and was elected to the post again in 2010, has not officially said he’ll run for re-election, but he has set up a campaign office and has hired several full-time campaign staff members.
The forum itself was an opportunity for the two to hear personal stories from employers of the disabled and the disabled themselves about government and private programs that have helped some transition to work.
Gerald Young, a member of the Iowa Army National Guard 1034th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, told the two politicians about the attack on his position in Afghanistan in 2003.
“Out of the four, I was the only one to survive,” he said.
Although he lived, he sustained massive spinal cord injuries that hindered his ability to move or even stand. But after receiving the family’s secret barbeque sauce from his father and taking an entrepreneurship class for injured veterans, Young now runs his own business: Young G’s Barbeque Sauce.
Harkin, whose Senate legacy may be his authorship of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said there are 55 million disabled Americans, 15 million of them are working age but only 5 million are working. It’s a percentage that he said can be improved upon.
“In all my years, this has been one issue that has transcended party lines,” he said. “Work on disability policy has been the most nonpartisan, bipartisan thing I’ve worked on.”
Robert Frank, store manager of a Cedar Rapids Walgreens, told Branstad and Harkin about the company’s REDI program, which stands for Retail Employees with Disabilities Initiative.
The program encourages the recruitment and training of people with disabilities to work in various capacities in the company.
“All they need is a chance, really,” Frank said.