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Political Mercury

Harkin says maybe it’s time for Grassley to retire


Iowa Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who has served in public office since the Eisenhower administration, should perhaps “retire” or “step aside.” This is the sense his former colleague Tom Harkin says he gets when traveling the state, talking to Iowans — including political independents, a voting block Harkin thinks could swing the Nov. 8 election in favor of Democratic Senate candidate Mike Franken, a retired admiral.

Rural Iowans see that Franken, a high-ranking retired military figure and a native of Sioux County who worked in meat-packing plants to put himself through college, has a solid resume and values — and is poised to outperform recent statewide Democratic candidates in rural reaches of the state, Harkin said in an interview following a Democratic event in Council Bluffs for Josh Turek, a state legislative candidate, and Jeff Shudak, a Democrat labor leader seeking a Pottawattamie County Board of Supervisors seat.

Harkin said Franken is clearly the change candidate in a U.S. Senate race where that matters.

“First of all, I think he will win the independent vote, not because people are mad at Grassley,” Harkin said. “Look, I’ve been a friend of Chuck Grassley all the time I was in office. We are talking about 40 years. We came together in 1975. We had a different political philosophy. I always liked Chuck. I got along fine with him. What I sense is that a lot of people think is maybe it’s time for him to retire.”

Harkin, elected to the U.S. House in 1974 and the Senate in 1984, retired in 2014 and was succeeded in office by Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, who then captured a second term in 2020.

Grassley won election to the Iowa Legislature in 1958. Like Harkin, he then served in the U.S. House and, at age 89, is seeking an eighth, six-year term in the Senate.

Should Grassley have retired in 2016, going out around the same time as Harkin? Did Grassley stay too long?

“Look, people have to do what they feel they have to do,” Harkin said. “I can’t say that. And I can’t say that I personally feel Grassley should retire. What I’m telling you is that what I’m hearing from a lot of people is they think Grassley has done a good job, they’ve appreciated his representation of Iowa all these years, but, you know, maybe it’s time for him to step aside, to retire. I think a lot of that sense is going around the State of Iowa, and that’s why I think Mike Franken has a very good chance in this.”

Harkin said Grassley, with whom he interacted on countless agriculture initiatives and other endeavors for Iowa, with effective bipartisanship, often surprises him with statements and political decisions.

“I have on several occasions read some things and said, ‘That’s not the Chuck Grassley I know. That’s not the Chuck Grassley I served with,’ ” Harkin said.

Specifically, Harkin said Grassley was out of line to suggest that Internal Revenue Service officials would potentially bring firearms to meetings with Iowans and possibly gun down small businesspeople.

“Senator Grassley says they are going to come out with AK-15s shooting our local, small businesspeople,” Harkin said. “That does not sound like the Chuck Grassley I’ve known in the past.”

Speaking in August on “Fox & Friends,” Grassley said of the IRS:

“Are they going to have a strike force that goes in with AK-15s already loaded, ready to shoot some small businessperson in Iowa with these, because I think they’re going after middle class and small business people, because they think that anybody that has pass-through income is a crook, and they aren’t paying their fair share, and we’re going to go after them.”

So what does Harkin think it is? Is Grassley just that desperate to win and hold on to power, or is he a different person?

“I’m not making a judgment, I don’t know,” Harkin said. “All I can tell you is it just doesn’t sound like the Chuck Grassley I used to know.”

Has Harkin ever thought about picking up the phone and calling Grassley and saying, “What are you doing? This isn’t you.”

“Maybe I should have, I don’t know,” Harkin said. “I haven’t.”

Meanwhile, Harkin says he has gotten to know Franken quite well.

“I think what rural people like is they like the real deal,” Harkin said of Franken. “They want someone who, ‘Hey, you’re honest, you’re real, you’re not being phony.’ He’s the real deal, and I think people sense that.”

• • •

Since the Clinton years, the Democratic Party has relied too heavily on the celebrity of Oval Office aspirants and ignored county and local level races, a strategy, by turns design and mistake, that leaves Democrats with few officeholders and candidates in vast swaths of Iowa, Harkin said.

It’s no accident that Harkin made the comments in this southwest Iowa city, where the tireless Jeff Shudak, a union plumber who knows his politics, the people and the region, has assembled an aggressive campaign in his bid as a Democrat for the GOP-controlled Pottawattamie County Board of Supervisors.

Another local candidate who can cut through the tribalism in western Iowa is in Manilla — former Crawford County Supervisor Dave Muhlbauer, a Democrat who farms and helms a cattle-and-hog operation south of Aspinwall. Muhlbauer is seeking a seat on the Board of Supervisors in November — and he has a message and the local credibility in agriculture and small-town life to be viable.

Should they win, both Shudak, the president of the Western Iowa Labor Federation, and Muhlbauer, a son and grandson of state legislators, have potential for higher office.

It’s essential party building of the variety that seeded the Republican field with Gov. Kim Reynolds, a former Osceola County treasurer, and U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, a former Montgomery County auditor, many Iowa Democrats say.

“We Democrats forgot about local government,” Harkin said. “And I’ve said this before: quite frankly, in Iowa, the Republicans have cared more about local government than Democrats. Look at what’s happened out there. We didn’t focus on those county offices. They are important to people, and we left it, and even somewhat the Legislature also.”

The roots of the problem?

“When Clinton became president, it was all for Clinton,” Harkin said. “It was all for the president and re-election. I thought with Obama it was going to be different because he had been a state senator in Illinois.”

Harkin credited former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, a presidential candidate in 2004 whom Harkin endorsed, with developing an effective 50-state strategy focusing on local races, rural swaths of the nation.

“Obama comes in, they get rid of Howard Dean, and it all becomes Obama For America, and everything became just for the Obama White House and his re-election,” Harkin said.

Backing off on local races and relying on top-down party building has been disastrous for Democrats, Harkin said.

“To me, that’s what we Democrats have to do. We have to get back to local government and finding good candidates to run for these offices and supporting them,” Harkin said. ♦

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.

One Comment

  1. Diane Kolmer says:

    Sen Harkin is right.. we have not focused on local legislative and county elections in the past.. we have no depth of candidates and office holders to run for higher office. I’m giving $$, albeit, small $$ to legis candidates across Iowa.
    Focus on building a stable of local office holders for future statewide elections. Thank you Douglas Burns for this article, and highlighting local races.

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