SIOUX CITY | Tom Harkin recalls that Sioux City trip in May 1990. Perry Creek was swollen after two days of downpours, the 22nd flood in 98 years.

Harkin, in his sixth of what would become 30 years in the United States Senate, met with victims.

"I recall the devastation," Harkin said in an interview with the Journal last week. "That flood in 1990 convinced me we had to redouble our efforts."

Harkin pushed for federal money and, on a sunny August 2007 day, returned to see the results: a widened and channelized Perry Creek, from the city's north side to the Missouri River. The $101 million project expunged 9,000 properties from floodplain designation.

It was a major victory for Sioux City. And it joined a list of legislative wins for Harkin, who after 40 years in Washington remains modest and soft-spoken about his accomplishments in the nation’s capital.

These are the final days in office for Iowa’s junior senator, who at 75 declined to run for another term, capping a career that includes the investigation of South Vietnam prison camps, being part of a wave of Democrats elected after Watergate, authoring the Americans with Disabilities Act, running for president and, through his annual steak fry, becoming a power broker for would-be chief executives. 

He leaves as one of the last of the so-called liberal lions, a Democrat criticized by the right for expanding government, cutting into personal rights and not reining in spending effectively. He supports Obamacare and voted for creating a path to citizenship for people without legal status. 

Supporters see a dedicated public servant with a progressive agenda who gets things done.

"He cares about the things that we learn about in church every Sunday -- take care of the sick, shelter for the homeless," said Diane Hamilton, a former Buena Vista County Democratic Party chairwoman. "He's about as liberal of a senator as you'll find."


Ask Harkin about his political beliefs and he grabs a framed Works Progress Administration card that belonged to his father. The federal program found a job for Harkin’s aging father, a coal miner, in 1939, the same year Thomas Richard Harkin was born in Cumming, Iowa.

"Not only did it give my dad a job," Harkin said, "but it gave him hope."

The paycheck -- $40.30 a month -- put the family on better footing. 

Growing up, Harkin realized the important role government could play. He came to see himself a Democrat, through his days at Dowling High School in Des Moines, Iowa State University and in the U.S. Navy serving in the Vietnam War.

Harkin became an aide to U.S. Rep. Neal Smith, D-Iowa, and went on a congressional delegation to South Vietnam in 1970. His photos of a prison camp were published in Life Magazine, causing an outcry about conditions.

He earned a law degree from Catholic University of America. Back in Iowa, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House in 1972, the same year he held a steak dinner as a fundraiser. It would become his signature event.

Two years later, Richard Nixon resigned, and the post-Watergate era ushered in a host of new Democrats -- the so-called "Watergate babies." Harkin served 10 years in the U.S. House before unseating U.S. Sen. Roger Jepsen, R-Iowa. 

Looking back at his ascent, Harkin, a father of two, said he’s “living proof that in America, if you have the gumption and you want to work hard, you can do about anything you want.”


Harkin made helping working families a priority. One way was through community health centers that assist low-income people. The state went from two to 15 during Harkin's time.

The Siouxland Community Health Center was founded in a former doctor's office, then relocated to a bigger site. The center at 1021 Nebraska St. in Sioux City was modernized in 2014.

"The Sioux City clinic is one of the biggest and one of the best," Harkin said.

More than 22,000 people have been served in each of the last four years. A clinic in Storm Lake has served more than 8,700 people every year since 2010.

Jim Wharton, a former Sioux City mayor who works as director of marketing and fund development for the Sioux City facility, said “the impact he has had on the poor and the handicapped is incalculable.”

Said Wharton, “While the Perry Creek flood control project is the most obvious, there are many other examples that are as important but perhaps not as visible.”

Sioux City Mayor Bob Scott said Harkin recognized that Iowans wanted him to work on projects that benefit communities.

"He probably had more input than the city officials did on some projects," Scott said.

Maureen Wilson, who worked as an aide to Harkin until 2009, said constituents were always on the senator’s mind. He took pride in it.

"I can't imagine having any better boss on earth than Tom,” said Wilson, of Kingsley, Iowa. “(He) was always supportive.”


But it’s the Americans with Disabilities Act that is Harkin’s signature. The struggles of Harkin's deaf older brother, Frank, inspired his commitment to helping the disabled.

The law, which prohibits discrimination based on disability, was signed into law by President George Bush in 1990.

“One of the most satisfying things in my life that I’ve been blessed with is to live this long and to see what has happened in our country because of one bill I sponsored and worked like the dickens to get through,” Harkin said.

Harkin said he doesn't shrink from being labeled a liberal or progressive.

"You aren't closed-minded. You understand that people have different beliefs from you," Harkin said.

He ran on a similar platform for president in 1992, eventually losing to Bill Clinton for the party nomination. By that time, his steak fries had become a political tradition. Until the last one in September (headlined by Clinton and Hillary Clinton, a possible 2016 candidate), the event became a de-facto stop for any Democrat seeking to get exposure in front of Iowa caucus voters.

The final fry came a few months before state Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, won the election to replace Harkin in the Senate. His announcement in January 2013 that he wouldn’t seek another term set off an intense race for the open seat. He said the decision was based on age – he would be 81 at the end of another six-year term.

Harkin said it’s time for younger people. Despite Republicans controlling the Senate, he hopes to see immigration reform and infrastructure needs addressed and lawmakers working together – a rarity in Washington, Harkin said. He remembers his early years when he got to know Republicans Jesse Helms and Bob Dole over lunch. The fact is, senators no longer socialize, make strong connections, or broker deals, Harkin said.

An exception is Harkin and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who have served as elected officials together since 1974. Grassley in November took to the Senate floor and honored his fellow Iowa senator for a "remarkable and distinguished record of public service."

While they may have disagreed, "we both know that our hearts have always been in the right place," Grassley said, at one point becoming visibly emotional, adding later, "From one constituent to another, I thank you for a lifetime of public service."

Asked about his time in Washington, Harkin -- who now plans to spend time working on the public policy institute named for him at Drake University -- said he doesn’t want to dwell too much on his accomplishments or the politics of yesterday. He said his wife, Ruth, gave him good advice.

"It is all right to look back,” she said, “just don't stare."


County and education reporter

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