and photos by Douglas Burns
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairs a Senate
Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee
hearing. Harkin has used his leadership
of the committee to work on improving
the lives of the disabled.
Inside the Capitol for a day with Sen. Tom
For much of his life, Ricardo Thornton lived
as one of the forgotten, the voiceless. He calls
his challenge a learning disability, but experts
deemed it more mentally profound — what Thornton,
53, says people called “retardation” when he
He spent much of his life institutionalized.
“I didn’t get to think for myself,” Thornton
testifies before a U.S. Senate committee. “The
staff thought for me and made all of my decisions.
For a long time, no one expected anything of
But here is Thornton, on a sweltering day in
late June, one in which witnesses before the
Senate panel need not one, but two or three
bottles of water. Thornton reveals a voice,
and a strong one, as he answers questions from
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the
Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
“Anyone can become disabled at any time,” Thornton
says. “We are people just like everyone else.
The time needs to be over for people to be sent
to institutions because there aren’t options
in the community or because people think it’s
cheaper or more protected. It wastes people’s
lives and, in the long run, keeps them from
For the past 35 years, Thornton has worked in
collections at the Washington, D.C. public library’s
Martin Luther King branch. He and wife, Donna,
who also has an intellectual disability, live
in the community. They raised a son, Ricky,
now 24. They want Harkin to help others escape
the institutionalized life.
After the hearing, as Harkin makes his way out
of a crowded committee room to meet with Senate
Democrats, he stops to chat with his star witness
and gives him a celebratory fist bump.
“I’m just happy somebody is hearing us,” an
excited Thornton says in an interview with Cityview.
“I got that he really cared for us.”
Thornton is now moving on to the business of
being a grandfather.
“I’m going to have to call Sen. Harkin and ask
him what you do about being a grandparent,”
Harkin family pet, Ollie, a Maltese, enjoys
some ice cream in the late afternoon outside
of the U.S. Capitol. |
For his part, Harkin, who has served in Congress
since 1975, lists his authorship of the Americans
With Disabilities Act as a signature accomplishment.
The legislation served as a civil rights bill,
an “Emancipation Proclamation,” for the disabled
— Americans Harkin says he thinks about every
day in the Senate.
In addition to the hearing and follow-up work
on moving more disabled Americans into mainstream
living, Harkin has traveled Iowa in recent weeks,
seeking to break down employment barriers for
Americans with mental and physical challenges.
It’s June 21, a Thursday on Capitol Hill with
a jammed Senate calendar. Before chairing the
committee hearing, Harkin hits his old stomping
grounds, the Longworth House Office Building,
with its more than 250 congressional suites,
for a Populist Caucus meeting. Iowa Democratic
Congressmen Bruce Braley and Leonard Boswell
join other House members for the session, largely
led by Harkin — an unabashed progressive who
came to this city during the Watergate era with
eyes on reform, an upending of the power structure
he still believes shuts out the middle class.
It’s 8 a.m. sharp, and fueled by one donut,
and possibly a second, Harkin starts the conversation.
The topic: the middle class. President Barack
Obama and Democrats need to more clearly make
the case that they are the representatives of
that vast but threatened American demographic,
“We are the middle-class party, and just keep
saying it,” Harkin says.
There’s talk of getting to Harkin’s former colleague
in the U.S. Senate, Vice President Joe Biden.
Harkin thinks Biden can press the case to the
Democrats have to connect with ideas about the
future, says veteran U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro,
the Connecticut liberal.
“It’s not about we went off the cliff; we were
in the ditch,” DeLauro says. “Nobody is listening
Fast forward three weeks. President Barack Obama
is speaking in Cedar Rapids. His focus: the
The president leads with anecdotes about his
background, an early biography molded in the
working and middle classes. This informs his
economic policy decisions today, Obama says.
“I want to hold taxes steady for 98 percent
of Americans,” Obama says. “Republicans say
they want to do the same thing. We disagree
on the other 2 percent. Well, what do you usually
do if you agree on 98 percent and you disagree
on 2 percent? Why don’t you compromise to help
the middle class? Go ahead and do the 98 percent,
and we can keep arguing about the 2 percent.
Let’s agree when we can agree. Let’s not hold
the vast majority of Americans hostage while
we debate the merits of another tax cut for
the other 2 percent.”
Harkin, 72, a native of Cumming, where he owns
the home in which he grew up, moves quickly
after the meeting. At one point he is nearly
running aside the subway system that shuttles
elected officials and staff between their offices
and the Senate floor. He smiles and slows down
for a moment so the photographer can catch a
shot — but just one. He chairs the hearing,
and then leaves for the Capitol where the Senate
will this day pass the farm bill, a legislative
whale that will cost about $1 trillion over
the next decade. A former chairman of the Senate
Agriculture Committee, Harkin is a key player
in what Senate staff members are calling a vote-a-rama.
Senators vote on a series of amendments to what
will emerge as a 1,091-page bill.
Harkin chats with U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass,
the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate.
From the Senate press gallery balcony you can
hear the distinctive laugh of U.S. Sen. Al Franken,
D-Minn., climbing in the chambers. The former
“Saturday Night Live” star riffed on something,
and his colleagues seem to be enjoying the moment
of levity, too.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., enters the Senate
chambers. A rising star in his party and the
subject of vice presidential speculation, Rubio
offers an amendment to the farm bill. It would
amend the National Labor Relations Act to permit
certain employers to pay higher wages to their
employees outside of a collective bargaining
“I can’t think of anything that would be more
disruptive to a workplace,” Harkin says on the
Rubio strikes back, “I disagree. We all know
we’re going to vote on this.”
The amendment fails 45 to 54. Harkin later says
he sees a lot of former U.S. Sen. Dan Quayle,
R-Ind., in Rubio.
The farm bill passes the Senate 65-34. It’s
the eighth farm bill Harkin has seen during
his time on The Hill.
“We have enhanced crop insurance in the bill,”
Harkin says in an interview with Cityview. “We
have good strong conservation programs which
is important in a lot of the hilly areas in
western Iowa. We have strong support for our
export program which is important for our beef
and pork producers.”
In the time between early votes this Thursday
Harkin talks with Cityview outside the Senate
chambers — under a portrait of Henry Clay, the
Kentuckian who served as Speaker of the U.S.
House in his mid-30s and as a U.S. senator.
Clay twice was nominated for the presidency
in the early 1800s.
It’s a major day in the Senate, and Harkin’s
mind easily moves to history, reflecting on
past leaders. He started as a congressman nearly
40 years ago, serving with President Gerald
Ford’s short tenure didn’t leave much impression
on Harkin, who supported his successor, President
“He was an interesting guy although very aloof,”
Harkin says of Carter. “Here’s a guy that I
had campaigned with all over western Iowa but
he got in the White House, and he just kind
of became aloof. He didn’t associate much with
us any longer, and I didn’t think he had very
capable people around him when he was in the
White House. His staff was people who just dismissed
All of the ideological positioning considered,
Harkin says he had a fondness for President
“Reagan was a nice guy,” Harkin says. “Quite
frankly, I liked Ronald Reagan. Every time I
saw him we always talked about WHO-radio, of
course, his time in Iowa. He was a great raconteur,
storyteller. He was nice to be around.”
However, Harkin believes policies instituted
after Reagan’s election in 1980 continue to
plague the nation.
“I think a lot of things that happened then
set us back a long ways in terms of our tax
policies and governmental policies that really
helped the middle class,” Harkin says. “We began
He says the erosion of the pension system started
under Reagan who also ushered in a means of
business that gave more to capital and less
As for President George H.W. Bush?
“I liked him a lot, very smart guy,” Harkin
Harkin said he owes Bush a debt of gratitude
for signing Americans With Disabilities Act.
“He was very helpful in getting it passed,”
The 1990s were the Clinton years, full of surprises
from the White House, Harkin says. Not all were
“That was sort of a roller coaster ride,” Harkin
says. Democrats lost the Congress to the GOP
in the 1994 election, red-carpeting what Harkin
terms the “era of Newt Gingrich.”
“Clinton, for a variety of reasons, never really
reached his full potential as president,” Harkin
President George W. Bush?
“Total disaster,” Harkin says.
“I just can’t begin to describe how he and Cheney
ran things, ramming things through a Republican
Congress, the wars, the tax skewing,” Harkin
Harkin served with then U.S. Sen. Barack Obama,
D-Ill., whose office was near his. Obama made
a big splash at a Harkin steak fry before announcing
his campaign for the White House.
“He’s had a tough slog as president,” Harkin
says. “What do you do when you become president
and the minority leader of the Senate says their
goal is to make Obama a one-term president —
not that their goal is to reduce unemployment,
create jobs, work with Democrats to reach consensus.
But their goal is to stop Obama.”
Harkin then reflects on his own failed bid for
the White House in 1992.
“I think it was the right time for me to run,”
Harkin says. “I just made some big mistakes
and made some stumbles. It was my own fault
more than anything else.”
But Harkin says he spied an opening early for
Democrats that year, when others were prepared
“I was the first person out there that said
George Bush can be beaten,” Harkin says. “And
he was riding at 70 percent approval ratings
in the polls.”
Harkin adds, “Truth be known, Bill Clinton ran
that year thinking that he could not beat Bush
but that he would do well enough that he would
be in position to be the nominee the next time
around when Bush’s term was up. I know that’s
why he jumped into that race.”
As the farm bill votes proceed, Harkin shifts
his attention for a time to Iowa’s second-largest
city. Harkin and his staff meet with the head
of the flood recovery efforts in Cedar Rapids
and several members of the city council to discuss
two main issues of concern: appeals to initial
rulings by FEMA concerning specific recovery
projects and the Corps of Engineers construction
of an improved levee system for the city.
More votes and private meetings round out the
day — which ends on a high note, the annual
ice cream social on the U.S. Senate grounds.
Harkin has his daughter Jenny’s dog, Ollie,
on the leash, part of his canine babysitting
duties. Harkin chats with staff members, has
a little ice cream himself and then focuses
“I got him just a little more ice cream,” Harkin
says. “I don’t want to make him sick.”
The day turns to night with ice cream and Harkin
heads to the Virginia home he and wife, Ruth,
have owned since they came to represent in the
The next morning, around 8 a.m., Harkin prepares
for a media call with Iowa newspaper and radio
reporters. The Capitol and the associated House
and Senate office buildings are largely empty
on this sweaty Friday. It’s a lonely walk with
Harkin through the corridors of power today.
You hear not voices of hurried 20-something
staffers and self-important congressmen but
the echoes of your own footsteps. Each week
when he does this call, Harkin issues an opening
statement to the media and then, sitting in
the Senate recording studios in the U.S. Capitol,
fields questions, sometimes from eight or nine
reporters, other times from dozens. Much of
the talk this Friday is on the farm bill.
Next up, National Public Radio is on the line
for the nationally broadcast program “All Things
Considered.” The topic is the minimum wage.
Harkin has introduced what he calls the Rebuild
America Act, which increases the federal minimum
wage in three steps, to $9.80 per hour, up from
the current $7.25, and then indexes it to inflation
so it will keep up with cost of living. It also
increases the minimum wage for tipped workers
to 70 percent of the federal minimum wage.
Before going to Harkin, “All Things Considered”
leads with a quote from President Franklin Roosevelt
about the importance of the launching of the
minimum wage in 1938 at 25 cents an hour.
“Except perhaps for the Social Security Act
it is the most far-reaching, the most far-sighted
program for workers that has ever been adopted,”
Roosevelt says, his confident voice unmistakably
booming from history into the NPR show.
Harkin gets straight to the numbers. In today’s
dollars, the minimum wage stood at $10.34 in
1968. People making the minimum wage spend most
of their money which will boost the economy,
Harkin says. Increasing it to the level he proposes
will turn a $15,000-a-year job into a $20,000
one. Sure, it’s an election year. Harkin gets
this. Will his bill pass? He’s not bullish on
it, but the senator wants an accounting of the
A day earlier, Harkin had talked fondly of his
late friend, U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.,
his compatriot with the Americans With Disabilities
Act and so much else. He’d also chastised a
reporter for loading a question with too much
White House influence, diminishing the role
of the Senate with the wording. To do this,
Harkin quoted another late liberal, U.S. Sen.
Robert Byrd, D-W.V., by sharing, “Senators don’t
serve under any president. We are co-equal branches.”
New progressives like Franken and Braley have
arrived — but they come without Harkin’s archive
of battles waged and memories of the fights
of 40 years.
It’s quiet in the Senate this morning. Still
in the Capitol.
But not in this recording studio. The last lion
is at work amid the echoes of Roosevelt, with
the memories of Kennedy.
“Quite frankly, I don’t believe anyone should
live in poverty if they have a job,” Harkin