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BY BRENT GRIFFITHS | APRIL 29, 2013 5:00 AM

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WASHINGTON, D.C., — The sound of shoes clicking on the cream-colored marble floor echo throughout the long hallway of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Flanked by officials from Waukee and other Iowa towns, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has arrived at work. It’s around 9 a.m., and the lifelong Democrat is slightly late to his weekly constituent breakfast — the recent federal sequester means he had to enter through the Senate garage, because his regular entrance was clogged with numerous people.

The 73-year-old joins his guests standing in the room, where he weaves small talk about the best tourist attractions in with the possible loss of Saturday mail service.

Harkin’s scheduler encourages his boss to spend about five minutes per group of people.

Of course, he goes past the allotted time with each group. The five-term senator from Cumming, Iowa, appears to enjoy this connection with his fellow Iowans.

On this particular Wednesday in mid-March, the senator is dressed in a plain black suit and green dotted tie — an outfit almost as simple as the wire frame of his glasses. The soon-to-retire Harkin is regarded by his colleagues as a fighter for the liberal causes he has championed since setting foot in office. As this former U.S. Navy jet pilot begins his final stretch in Washington, D.C., he leaves a legacy of old-time prairie politician mixed with new-age progressive.

Harkin points to many accomplishments during his almost four decades representing Iowa in D.C., but perhaps the biggest success came in 1990 with the Americans with Disabilities Act. People still remember his impassioned speech on the Senate floor, pushing for the act’s approval and ending the plea in sign language. He was speaking about his late brother, Frank, who had been deaf since childhood.

Indeed, to trace Harkin’s advocacy on issues, one needs to look no further than his brother, the senator said. Frank was raised thinking he would amount to only being a baker, shoe cobbler, or printer’s assistant. One of the major legacies of the ADA is protection from the type of employment discrimination his brother suffered.

“I always like to put it this way,” Harkin said. “Prior to July 26, 1990, if you were a person of color or of a certain religious faith, maybe Jewish, let’s say you went down and applied for a job you were qualified for, and the employer said, ‘Get out of here, I don’t hire people of color, get out of here I don’t hire Jews or Catholics.’ If they did that, you could go right down to the courthouse door, because that was against the law.

“However, prior to July 26, 1990, if you were a person with a disability — let’s say my nephew rolled  his wheelchair in, and the prospective employer said, ‘I don’t hire cripples — get out of here,’ and you rolled your wheelchair down to the courthouse door … it was locked. You had no recourse under the law. So now after July 26 — after President [George H.W.] Bush signed that law — you’re treated just like race, religion, sex, national origin, disability. You can’t discriminate on the basis of a disability.”

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A short walk away from the weekly breakfast room sits the senator’s office, tucked behind a row of cubicles and a closed door.

Next to his office is a wall that Harkin says makes him “remember where I come from.” On it hang two pictures. One small square frames a faded sky-blue card. The name Patrick Harkin is printed across the first line of the Works Progress Administration card made Sept. 19, 1939, shortly before Harkin was born. The WPA was a Depression-era program for the unemployed.

“I was just four months away, and [my father] had no hope, no work,” Harkin said about his father’s attempts to find a job during the Great Depression with only a sixth-grade education. “He got a job, and helped build roads … [and] high schools back when we used to build things.”

Here he paused.

“You see,” he said, “the government can give hope to people.”

The other frame is rectangular and holds a handful of photos of the small village of Suha, Slovenia — the town where his mother grew up with “dirt floors and no plumbing.”

His parents’ background, Harkin says, makes him remember to focus on those whose voices aren’t necessarily heard. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who will run to replace Harkin next term, said this spirit of fighting for the underrepresented in Washington has always been a trademark of Harkin’s time in Washington.

“I think that he always felt a strong calling to fight for the underdog — the people who didn’t have highly paid lobbyists to speak for themselves,” Braley said.

Even his opponents note the fighter in him. Perhaps no one knows Harkin’s stances better than his Republican counterpart from Iowa — Sen. Chuck Grassley, who has differed with Harkin so frequently “they’ve agreed to disagree.” Both describe themselves as populists — albeit with starkly contrasting visions. Grassley said that when the pair has worked together, “there’s no light between us.”

“He’s a fierce fighter on the floor of the Senate for the things he cares about,” Grassley said.

• • •

Now, it’s early afternoon. Politics are set aside, along with his jacket, as Harkin heads to Brent Elementary School accompanied by several staffers. Every Wednesday, if possible, Harkin makes the short trip to see third grader Luther, his reading partner. Inspired by longtime colleague and friend former Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Harkin has gone here for many years on behalf of Everybody Wins, a national organization focused on finding elementary students a weekly reading partner. Harkin started his own branch in Des Moines in 2002.

With his BlackBerry stashed away in his hip holster, this is by far Harkin’s longest appointment of the day. Luther and Brian Ahlberg, Harkin’s chief-of-staff, take turns each reading a couple of pages at a time before the lanky senator rests his head on his hand and starts his turn.

After they finish their weekly session, Harkin asks Luther about his plans for the upcoming Easter holiday, which marks a special occasion for the senator’s grandkids.

“It’s the one day I let my grandkids have sugar before breakfast,” he tells Luther.

The trim senator takes his health quite seriously, so much so that his usual lunch consists of low sodium soup, one slice of whole grain bread, and a bottle of skim milk.

His breakfast is usually yogurt — homemade from a batch he received from an Iowan long ago — and when he wants to add something to the vanilla concoction he stores in his refrigerator, he adds only fruit — fresh fruit.

On the short drive back to the Capitol, Harkin considers what he will miss about the city in which he has spent close to two decades. However, besides his job and staff, he said he doesn’t have one particular thing that draws him to the capital city, not even a restaurant, because he prefers to stay in and cook with his wife. Harkin’s wife, Ruth Harkin, serves as a state regent and occasionally visits him in D.C.

However, his eyes grow wider when he’s asked about what he misses during his long, demanding workdays. He has quite a few things he says he will pick back up in retirement including woodworking and writing.

• • •

By the time Harkin retires, he will have served 40 years representing Iowa, and while his biggest legacy will most likely remain the ADA, he maintains a large presence across the state from his yearly Steak Fry to being the first senator to have a mobile office — a retrofitted RV that a staffer drove from town to town.

“Tom always said that you need take care of your own backyard first,” said Dianne Liepa, Harkin’s state director from 1995 to 2009 and employee for 33 years. “He’s not detached from the whole operation … some people go to Washington and feel as if they’re above it all, but Tom’s always been down-to-earth.”

However, his time in office hasn’t come without controversy.

In February, he decided not to give his papers covering his 30 years in the Senate and 10 years in the House to the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State University following a conflict about allowing agricultural research.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute, I have been on the Agricultural Committee for 38 years, and it will be 40 when I retire,’ ” Harkin said. “I have been chairman of the committee twice, and I have gotten two [agriculture] bills through under my chairmanship; what do you mean the institute can’t study agriculture? The chairman of the Board of Regents said Iowa State should speak with only one voice on agriculture. I said, this a university, not a church; orthodoxy is OK for religion, but orthodoxy for a university? I was struck by this.”

Harkin named Bruce Rastetter as one of the regents who instigated some of the controversy.

“I’m disappointed the view from the senator is this is a restriction on his papers,” said Rastetter, the regents’ president pro tem. “I respect the work he has done on [agriculture] research, but the [Iowa State] Faculty Senate has gone on record that there are no limits to the institute’s academic freedom. That’s what I base my perspective on.”

Later on Wednesday, when  asked about the institute, it was the first time true exhaustion was evident on his face. His tone sounded full of regret. What would have been the most obvious reminder of his two decades of service, some would say, was now reduced to political fodder and cries of scandal.

“I had never thought this would be a political issue,” he said. “I never went to Iowa State to do this; they came to me. I thought this would be a good thing to do for my alma mater, but then it got into this … the Iowa Legislature got into it, and House Republicans wanted to vote on it and made it this big political football. It was just painful to see this. … They made it into a controversy, which it never should have been.”

• • •

As the evening is about to begin in Washington, Harkin emerges from a room full of applause after speaking with the Iowa Farm Bureau. Following seven back-to-back votes on the Senate floor interrupted by a short, scheduled committee meeting, Harkin shows noticeable signs of wear for the day.

“I’ve only had five minutes to look at these,” he tells his aide as she hands him three scripts to look over before he reads them in front of a camera. After the short walk up the Hart Office Building stairs, he read the scripts quickly outside the Senate studio. Beyond him sits what looks like the cross between a morning-show set and an evening-news desk. This is the Senate studio, where members come to record short videos to be played at events they can’t attend in person.

Sipping a cup of water, Harkin announces he is ready as the control-room people jump into action — his face plastered across the bank of small television screens. The script scrolls on a screen nearby as Harkin records the short videos. One of these is about Bob Oberbellig, who oversaw Harkin’s work at Polk County Legal Aid.

The script stands in place for more than five minutes. Using the same skills he showcased at the breakfast, Harkin adds in stories about his time with Oberbellig after Harkin lost his 1972 run for the House.

In a later interview, Oberbellig, the former executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Polk County, said he has stayed in touch with the senator over the years. Oberbellig said one of the moments he will never forget is when Harkin called to offer his condolences after Oberbellig’s wife died.

“When my wife died, in 1998, she died about 6 in the morning, and I don’t think it was even 7:30 [a.m.] or so when he was the first person to call to personally offer condolences,” Oberbellig said. “I’ll never forget that … I was in my kitchen trying to just get control of my life at that point, and it made the world of difference to me. That’s Tom; Tom is a very loyal person.”

Harkin quickly dons his jacket as he rushes out of his Hart office. His wife is waiting outside ready to go to a gala, and he is running a little late.

Of course, this is to be expected of a senator who seems to connect not just with his fellow Iowans but anyone he comes across. Two years from now, the man who local activist John Deeth described as “the living symbol of the Iowa Democratic Party” will no longer be here, walking the chambers of the Congress buildings — but don’t expect him to be content with a simple retirement.

“Trust me,” he said with a smile. “I’m not going to just sit down on the bench now.”


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