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July 26, 2012
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The last lion

Story and photos by Douglas Burns

U.S. 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 Harkin

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 was younger.

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 me.”

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 contributing.”

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,” Thornton jokes.

A 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, Harkin implores.

“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 president.

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 to that.”

Fast forward three weeks. President Barack Obama is speaking in Cedar Rapids. His focus: the middle class.

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 agreement.

“I can’t think of anything that would be more disruptive to a workplace,” Harkin says on the Senate floor.

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.

Ford’s short tenure didn’t leave much impression on Harkin, who supported his successor, President Jimmy Carter.

“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 Congress.”

All of the ideological positioning considered, Harkin says he had a fondness for President Ronald Reagan.

“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 to re-trench.”

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 to labor.

As for President George H.W. Bush?

“I liked him a lot, very smart guy,” Harkin says.

Harkin said he owes Bush a debt of gratitude for signing Americans With Disabilities Act.

“He was very helpful in getting it passed,” Harkin says.

The 1990s were the Clinton years, full of surprises from the White House, Harkin says. Not all were good.

“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 says.

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 says.

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 to wait.

“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 on Ollie.

“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 nation’s capital.

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 Senate’s priorities.

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 says. CV

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