by U.S. District Court Judge Robert W. Pratt, Southern District of Iowa
In late January, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) announced he would retire when this session of Congress ends in December, 2014. I have known Tom Harkin since we worked together as young lawyers at the Polk County (Des Moines, Iowa) Legal Aid Society. The first paragraph of any article about Harkin must mention the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark civil rights legislation outlawing discrimination against those with disabilities passed in the congress of 1989-90. This is as it should be because that law has literally changed the face of America but there is so much more, however, that most people do not know about his work.
While at Polk County legal aid as a young lawyer he lobbied the Iowa legislature to pass the Uniform Consumer Credit Code, lobbied to eliminate the sovereign immunity for tort liability for governments, worked against those who wanted to raise the interest rates for consumers and challenged in the Iowa Supreme Court a loitering ordinance that was used indiscriminately against the poor.
Although Iowa is now a politically competitive state, it was not always so. From the time of the Civil War, just as southern states were solidly Democratic, Iowa was solidly Republican. It was once common wisdom that “Iowa would go Democratic when hell went Methodist.” Remarkably Harkin, during his political career has defeated five incumbent members of Congress, and is the only Democrat in Iowa’s history to be re-elected to the U.S. Senate. Along the way he has helped Iowa’s state Democratic Party to be one of the most progressive and best organized in the country. Harkin’s political legacy in Iowa is secure because of that and also because so many of his former staff and campaign people are prominent in today’s progressive movement.