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Civic Skinny

Harkin shakes things up and leaves a legacy. Your Legislature at work: Nipple rings, free food

1/30/2013

There have been four spectacular Democrats in Iowa in the past 50 years: Harold Hughes, Neal Smith, Tom Vilsack and Tom Harkin. Harold Hughes fathered the community-college system and liquor by the drink, fundamentally changing the state. Neal Smith provided Iowa with everything Mother Nature didn’t — lakes and greenways, in particular, making the state a better place to live. Tom Vilsack put the state on firm footing and is leaving a legacy of vibrant towns and cities through his imaginative Vision Iowa program.

But Tom Harkin has changed the most lives: Besides seeing to it that the state’s universities were larded with research money for education, agriculture and medicine, he authored the Americans With Disabilities Act — the act that made life less discriminatory and less inconvenient for persons with mental and physical disabilities. He has made life a little better — in most cases, a lot better — for millions of Americans. One example: He’s the guy responsible for closed-captioning on television.

Now, Hughes is dead, Smith is in his 90s and retired in an apartment in downtown Des Moines, Vilsack is off in Washington, D.C., as Secretary of Agriculture, and, as he announced Saturday, Harkin is retiring after five terms in the United States Senate and five in the House of Representatives. The retirement is great news for Harkin and his family, but terrible news for Iowa. Harkin, a coal-miner’s son now is his fifth term, is an unreconstructed 1960s liberal with huge seniority and much clout in matters of education and health-care, a combination that has been wonderful for everyone who isn’t rich and healthy — for the sick and the studious, the needy and the nerdy, the different and the distressed.

He could easily win re-election in 2014. But he is quitting because he is 73 years old and still has a lot he wants to do in life. Iowa Democrats say they are stunned by the news, but they shouldn’t have been. He has nearly $3 million in his campaign chest, but he hasn’t been raising money vigorously. He recently turned down a huge Senate post — chairman of the Appropriations Committee — and he has made no secret of the fact that Washington has changed since he went there, that politics is less collegial and more difficult. Still, he’s not a Washington-basher, like some recent Senate retirees.

Some time ago, he promised himself and his wife, Ruth — who’s as expert in politics as he is in policy — that he would retire. A few months ago, he told a friend that it’s sad to see some people start to fail as they stay in office too long, and it’s no secret he didn’t relish spending the next 18 months flying around the country raising another $5 million or $6 million. The Harkins are healthy and, thanks to her business career, wealthy. They can do what they want.

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The Republicans had all but ceded the 2014 election to Harkin — Sen. Chuck Grassley virtually said that the other day — but now the Democrats will have a fight on their hands. Reps. Tom Latham and Steve King, who wouldn’t think of taking on Harkin, surely will take a new look at the seat. Former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker could throw his name in the hat, as could Iowa Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix. And the race will be tempting to some wealthy conservatives — does the name Bruce Rastetter come to mind? And don’t rule out House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, though he’s in a good position to run for Bruce Braley’s seat in Congress.                

Harkin is close to Braley and would like to see him get the party’s nomination, though he says he won’t endorse anyone. But open senate seats don’t appear in Iowa very often — the last was in 1974, when Hughes retired and John Culver was elected — and Saturday’s announcement changed the hopes and dreams of many Iowa Democrats. Braley surely will run, but don’t dismiss others. Some will clamor to find a female candidate — but the most likely, legislator Liz Mathis of Cedar Rapids — would be more apt to try for Braley’s Congressional seat — and you can’t rule out former Gov. Chet Culver, who was raised in a Senate family. Surely, a handful of legislators will look at it, too. In the end, though, the nomination is probably Braley’s.                

Indeed, in the end the race for Braley’s seat probably will be the hottest. The area is full of ambitious Democratic legislators — Jeff Danielson and Bill Dotzler, to name two, and Mathis is a rising star. Someone from Dubuque probably will pop up, too. For the Republicans, the nomination probably is Paulsen’s if he wants it, but he may have to fend off Dix, who tried and failed to get the Republican nomination for the seat in 2006. …                

Your legislators at work, part one.                

Here is what you can do next Wednesday if you are a legislator. At 7 a.m., you can attend the legislative breakfast of the Northwest Area Education Association and Prairie Lakes Area Education Association at the state house Legislative Dining Room. At 1:30, you can go to the Great Prairie Area Education Association Legislative Reception in the same room. At 2, you can attend the legislative lunch with Latino Affairs on the ground floor of the Capitol.                

At 5, there’s the Iowa Medical Society Reception at Terrace Hill. At 5:30, there’s the annual lawyer-legislator dinner for lawyer-legislators hosted by the Iowa State Bar Association at the Embassy Club. At 6, there’s the Iowa State Building and Construction Trade Council Legislative Reception at Prairie Meadows. At 6 there’s also the Quad Cities Legislative Reception, at a site to be determined.                

Those are just a few of the 47 events already on the legislative social calendar for February. Four are on Mondays — three in the evening, one in the afternoon — and the remaining 42 are on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. None are on Fridays, of course — who would be around to attend? — or the weekends. …               

Your legislators at work, part two.                

Here are some bills introduced so far this session:

A bill to let political campaigners get into apartment buildings.

A bill that “modifies and expands current restrictions relating to performing and receiving a tattoo, and extends them to also apply to body piercing and body modification.” Under this bill, your under-18 daughter cannot have her nipple or belly-button or tongue pierced without your consent, but she can have her ears pierced. It’s OK, though, if she’s married.

A bill to let persons under 18 work in laundromats.

A bill saying that wine bottles needn’t have the bottle-return amount anywhere on the bottle.

A bill laying out procedures for farmers to complain when they think their cows are being affected by stray current or energy from a utility.

A bill prohibiting Iowa or any of its political subdivisions “from implementing or financially supporting the implementation of the United Nations’

Agenda 21,” which is an international environmental action plan, “if that would infringe or restrict private property rights.”

A bill that exempts investment counseling from the state sales tax. (Soon to come: XYZ Aluminum Siding and Investment Counseling, Inc.; ABC Chevrolet and Investment Counseling Dealership.)

A bill to let county supervisors allow golf carts on the streets of communities in unincorporated areas.

A bill raising to 16 from 14 the age at which a person can get a learner’s permit to drive a car.

A bill requiring back-seat passengers in cars to use seatbelts, just as front-seat passengers must do.

A bill prohibiting the importation, sale or disbursement of oriental bittersweet.

A House Resolution calling for a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to acquire, keep, possess, transport, carry, transfer and use guns and that prohibits mandatory licensing, registration or special taxation of guns. …                

A message from your senior United States Senator:                

“Message to Bloomberg TV. Go back to previous format 4 finance reporting I had wait 7min to get corn price previously just few secondsz”                

Message to Sen. Chuck Grassley: There are these things called apps. …                

The Des Moines Register on Saturday had a big story on the front page of the metro section headlined “more than $8 million pledged for D.M. YMCA.” The newspaper must not have had enough room to squeeze in the line “as reported in Cityview three days ago.” But at least it didn’t put an “exclusive” tag on it. Progress. CV

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