Harkin not slowing down as term draws to end

DES MOINES – When Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin completes his last year in office, the longstanding lawmaker may take a certain brand of liberal Midwestern populism with him.

A so-called “prairie populist,” Harkin was raised amid the social programs of the depression, witnessed the horrors of the war in Vietnam and charged into politics vowing to fight for the working classes, minorities and those with disabilities. Many of his like-minded Midwestern peers are no longer in government.

But until he walks out the door in January 2015, the 74-year-old Harkin shows no signs of slowing down his fight for the progressive causes he has championed throughout his nearly 40-year career. In recent months he has been advocating for President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, pushing for higher federal minimum wages and promoting anti-discrimination legislation.

While deciding to retire, “I wanted to get some things done,” said Harkin, adding that he hopes others will carry on his fight. “I sure hope that there are going to be more prairie populists coming along. I see populism as a positive force, not a negative force.”

An Iowa native, Harkin was first elected to the Senate in 1984, after 10 years in the House of Representatives. He ranks seventh in seniority, and fourth among Democrats. He is chairman of the health, education, labor and pensions committee, as well as the appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, education and related agencies. He is also a senior member of the agriculture committee.

Harkin considers winning bipartisan support for the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act his key legislative achievement. Harkin sought the bill because of his brother, who was deaf, and he used sign language to speak about the legislation on the Senate floor.

“I just saw how he was deaf, he was discriminated against,” Harkin said. “His choices, his options were limited. He wouldn’t accept that. It was always a struggle.”

More recently, Harkin served as a key salesman of Obama’s 2010 health care bill to the left. He has remained an advocate as the program has come under fire for a faulty enrollment website and for triggering insurers to cancel some individual policies. Harkin has also been active on a slew of other legislative priorities of late, including introducing legislation that would expand early childhood education.

“I just want to leave a legacy. Government is still an honorable profession. So is politics,” said Harkin. “It’s not bad, it’s good. You can do things that make a positive difference in people’s lives.” Harkin is part of a long tradition of Midwestern progressive politics that focuses on civil rights and government aid for the needy, as well as support for farming and environmental causes. This movement produced politicians like Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Walter Mondale, all Minnesota Democrats who unsuccessfully sought the presidency.