This past Sunday, Senator Tom Harkin held the thirty-seventh annual Harkin Steak Fry, a Democratic fundraiser that has drawn Presidential hopefuls to Indianola, Iowa, since its inception. About ten thousand people, including the photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier, were on hand this year to listen to the headliners Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, among other guests. It was the final steak fry for Senator Harkin, who is retiring after representing Iowa in Congress for forty years, leaving many to wonder what will supplant the famous event.
The 200 or so reporters who requested credentials to cover Sen. Tom Harkin’s 37th and final Steak Fry in Iowa on Sunday are primarily focused on featured speaker Hillary Clinton, the potential future Democratic nominee. But more than 200 former and current Harkin staffers flying in from around the country are focused on their shared past. A series of alumni reunions are being held around Des Moines before the Steak Fry, a testament to Harkin, one of the Senate’s most respected progressives, and to the the deep network of immensely loyal political operatives who got their start working for him.
Sen. Tom Harkin keeps two mementos on the wall of his office, reminders of where he came from. One is a picture of his mother’s birthplace in Slovenia, a house with a dirt floor, a house that her family shared with the animals. The other is the card his father received when he joined the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal. His mother died when he was 10. His father never got beyond sixth grade and was in his 70s and suffering from black lung and other maladies by the time Harkin was in high school. He watched one of his brothers, who was deaf, struggle and eventually lose his job when the factory owners broke the union.
Sen. Tom Harkin introduced one of the more significant pieces of legislation this year: the Rebuild America Act, a bill designed to help restore America’s middle class.