Tom Harkin makes rare appearance with 2020 contender

Event with Kirsten Gillibrand on disability rights draws former Iowa senator

Former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and New York senator and presidential contender Kirsten Gillibrand hug after speaking to reporters Sunday at a community discussion on disability rights at the Holiday Inn in West Des Moines, Iowa. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call).

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Bob Raker came to the Holiday Inn’s ballroom Sunday to see a Democratic senator, just not the one running for president.

“Anytime you get to see Sen. Tom Harkin, it’s worthwhile,” said Raker, a 65-year-old retired government worker. Harkin, a five-term senator who retired in 2015, has steered clear of the campaign trail as presidential hopefuls have crisscrossed his home state of Iowa.

But on Sunday, he made an exception for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

That’s because the New York Democrat was the first presidential candidate to hold a forum focused on disability rights, an issue that defined Harkin’s three decades in the Senate.

Harkin said he would gladly join any candidate of either party who wanted to focus on the issue, adding that it would be unwise for candidates to dismiss people with disabilities.

“Remember: Persons with disabilities vote,” Harkin said. “You’re disregarding them at your own electoral peril.”

At the forum Sunday, Gillibrand reiterated her pledge to appoint someone with a disability to her Cabinet if she is elected president, and she told reporters afterward that she would start a new government department focused on disability rights.

Gillibrand approached Harkin with the idea for the forum a few weeks ago. On Sunday, her campaign staffers pulled extra chairs into the packed ballroom for the hourlong discussion that featured Gillibrand, Harkin, Iowa Democratic state Sen. Pam Jochum, and three people with disabilities: a young man with Down syndrome, a woman who is blind, and another woman who is quadriplegic.

The advocates and politicians discussed a wide range of issues, including paying people with disabilities a living wage, combating discrimination, and improving access to and pay for home care workers.

The event was a unique one for Harkin, who has avoided the Democratic presidential primary fray so far. Just last week, a staffer at the Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement at Drake University said the former senator was not commenting on the presidential election.

Gillibrand and Harkin huddled with reporters after the event, and with cameras rolling, Harkin declined to say whether he would endorse in the primary. Instead, he said he hoped the candidates would talk more about disability policies.

But when the cameras went down, Harkin continued to speak to a small group of reporters in a gaggle that could have easily taken place near the Senate subway instead of the hotel ballroom.

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 11: Former Sen. Tom Harkin and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand speak to reporters at a community conversation to discuss disability rights at the Holiday Inn in West Des Moines on August 11, 2019 (Photo by Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call).
Harkin said he would meet with any candidate from either party to discuss disability rights, an issue that defined his three decades in the Senate. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call)

A ‘Trump state’?

Harkin called for Democratic candidates to be bolder on gun control policy, saying hunters would support an assault weapons ban and ammunition limits.

And he said even a liberal candidate could win Iowa, dismissing the notion that Iowa was a “Trump state” after President Donald Trump carried it by 9 points in 2016. He noted that Iowa sent him along with Republican Charles E. Grassley together to the Senate for years.

“He was conservative, I was liberal,” Harkin said. “How? I don’t think [voters] put us in those boxes. They put us in boxes of: You work hard, you care about us, are you here? Those kinds of personal kinds of things.”

After eight minutes talking politics, a Gillibrand staffer started to usher the former senator away.

“You’re right,” Harkin said, “I shouldn’t get off on these things.”

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