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Civic Skinny

Sen. Tom Harkin gets ready for the final Steak Fry. He has been Iowa’s worrying mother and rich uncle.

9/10/2014

Tom Harkin is on his final lap.

Instead of spending his days and nights campaigning for a sixth term in the United States Senate, he and his wife and children and grandchildren took a trip to Australia late last month. Instead of making endless calls to raise millions to run again, he’s going through the papers that soon will be archived at the Harkin Institute at Drake University.

The tributes are pouring in — awards here, dinners there, proclamations and appreciations everywhere. And this weekend, at the 37th annual Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, thousands of Iowans — and hundreds of reporters — will gather to hear Bill and Hillary Clinton sing his praises and, midst their political caginess, genuflect to his Iowa.

And, in many ways, it is his Iowa.

Tom Harkin is the last of the Midwestern Populists, the champion of the disabled, the guardian angel for the poor, a guy with his heart on his sleeve. He’s the only Iowa Democrat ever to be re-elected to the United States Senate, and he was re-elected regularly. He has defeated more incumbents in congressional elections than anyone in American history. He has worked tirelessly to ensure that our children are fed, our land is preserved, our old people are cared for, our universities are strengthened.

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He won’t turn his back on any issue or any cause, until his wife, Ruth — the Senator’s political strategist, straight-talking adviser and budget officer — slows him down.” You just can’t fight every fight, take on every cause,” she tells him. Sometimes he listens; sometimes he doesn’t.

As the father of the Americans With Disabilities Act, he has changed an entire nation, with access ramps and push-button doors and accessible bathrooms and curb-cuts and handicapped parking spaces and low drinking fountains and kneeling buses and hand rails — all the things that are invisible to able-bodied people but that have opened up the world to the disabled. Those things and more — like closed-captioning television — now are taken for granted in America, and it’s all because of Harkin and his genuine desire to help the people.

But Harkin — who still lives in the bungalow in Cumming where he grew up — has changed this state, too, probably more than anyone ever has. He rose to power in the era of the earmark, and he learned to grab his share, particularly for Des Moines and central Iowa.

In the 15 years from 1995 to 2010, when earmarks were abolished, he funneled more than $350 million into Polk County. The Principal River Walk? He found more than $5 million for it. The Des Moines River Greenbelt? Another $20 million or so. The Science Center of Iowa? Three or four million. The World Food Prize Hall of Laureates? More than $3 million. Education projects in the county — things like programs to help kids learn skills, to keep them in school, to equip their classrooms, to fund their research, to help everyone from pre-kindergartners to medical students? Some $40 million.

Health care? Millions for the nursing college at Mercy, plenty for the Free Clinics of Iowa, about $2 million for the Geriatric Research Center at Des Moines University and another $1 million or so for a wellness center at Grand View. Transportation? He guided more than $20 million into the building of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, at least $17 million into central Iowa trails, tens of millions into the airports in Des Moines and Ankeny.

skinny LinkedInAll of this is in addition to the hundreds of millions sent here through non-earmark legislation, for things like Pell Grants for college students and school-lunch money for needy students and all the other things that are lifelines to those who need food or shelter or health-care or schooling. For 40 years in Washington, 10 in the House of Representatives and 30 in the Senate, he has watched over this state — sometimes like a worrying mother, sometimes like a rich uncle. Need a phone call to help get an appointment at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda? He’ll make it. Need to find an organization to move into the shuttered School for the Blind? Here he is with AmeriCorps.

Tom Harkin went to the old Dowling High School in Des Moines, then on to Iowa State and law school in Washington. He is one of the most distinguished graduates of Iowa State, a university that in recent years snubbed him, insulted him and deeply hurt him when it belittled and diminished the Harkin Institute, which was to be at Iowa State and was to house his papers. After a shameful episode in which university officials quietly agreed among themselves that they would censor research proposals from the Harkin Institute that didn’t fit their Farm Bureau philosophy, the Senator moved the institute to Drake.

This was after Harkin had protected his alma mater with earmark funds. Look at the year 2002 alone: $2 million to start the biorenewable research resource consortia, $3 million for the Forensic Science Testing and Evaluation Lab, $2 million for Smart Materials for Future Aerospace Systems, $3 million for the Center for Aviation Systems Reliability, $3.6 million for the Engine Titanium Consortium, $1 million for the Center for Food Security and Public Health. The list runs on and on, adding up to more than $20 million, and that was just a typical year.

The nation’s senior junior senator — Chuck Grassley went to the Senate four years before Harkin — will turn 75 this fall. He’s hard of hearing, but otherwise fit. “I didn’t want to be one of those guys who leave drooling,” he told a friend a year ago when he explained why he was giving up a sure seat in the Senate. Besides, he said, he still has things he wants to get done.

CVA_11 PAGE 6Without question, he’ll continue his work on behalf of the disabled, one way or another but probably involving the Harkin Institute, which former Iowa Chief Justice Marsha Ternus is shaping at Drake. The papers will start being trucked in from Washington soon, and the renovated and retrofitted Cowles Library and its staff are ready to receive them and archive them.

The coming year will see scholars, speakers, researchers, fellows and students passing through the Institute, which will, of course, be handicapped accessible.

But first, thousands of Iowans will gather for the last time this Sunday at the Steak Fry. Hillary and Bill Clinton will be there, of course.

But they won’t be the stars. CV

A modest proposal 

Board of Regents president and millionaire businessman Bruce Rastetter got a $480,000 interest-free loan from an Iowa State University center, Ryan Foley of the Associated Press reported the other day.

That’s nice.

If Iowa State has money to lend, why not spread the largesse? How about this:

1. For every interest-free loan the university gives to a business, it must give the same amount in interest-free loans to students for tuition.

2. For every interest-free loan the university gives to a business owned by a multimillionaire, it must give twice the amount in interest-free loans to students for tuition.

3. For every interest-free loan the university gives to a business owned by a multimillionaire who also is president of the Board of Regents, it must give 10 times the amount in interest-free loans to students for tuition.

It’s just a thought.

• • •

Rastetter told the Associated Press that he had disclosed the loan on conflict-of-interest forms filed with the state and placed on the Regents website.

Well, yes and no.

The form says: “My company, Summit Farms, LLC, has entered into agreement with Iowa State University in three contracts involving the Alternate Energy Revolving Loan Program as administered by the Iowa Energy Center. The Iowa Energy Center is administrated through Iowa State University.”

No mention of an amount. No mention of “interest-free.” CV

— Michael Gartner

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