By: Alaina Dodd
A modest beginning...
Tom Harkin was born in Cumming, Iowa (pop. 150) on November 19, 1939, the son of an Iowa coal miner father and a Slovenian immigrant mother. To this day, he still lives in the house in Cumming where he was born.
Growing up in a close-knit family of modest means, Tom and his five siblings learned early in life the importance of hard work and responsibility. During his youth, he worked in a variety of jobs - on farms and construction sites, as a paper boy and at a Des Moines bottling plant.
After graduating from Dowling High School in Des Moines, he attended Iowa State University on a Navy ROTC scholarship, earning a degree in government and economics.
Following graduation, Tom served in the Navy as a jet pilot on active duty from 1962 to 1967. Later, he continued to fly in the Naval Reserves. He is an active member of American Legion Post 562 in Cumming and the Commander of the Congressional Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol.
In 1968, Tom married Ruth Raduenz, the daughter of a farmer and a school teacher from Minnesota.
Start in Washington...
Tom went to Washington in 1969 to join the staff of Iowa Congressman Neal Smith. As a staff member accompanying a congressional delegation to South Vietnam, he independently investigated and photographed the infamous "tiger cage" cells at a secret prison on Con Son Island, where prisoners - many of them students - were being tortured and kept in inhumane conditions. Despite pressure to suppress his findings, Tom made public his photos and eyewitness accounts, which were subsequently published in Life magazine. As a result, hundreds of abused prisoners were released.
In 1972, Tom and Ruth graduated in the same class at Catholic University of America Law School in Washington, D.C. They returned to Iowa and settled in Ames. Tom worked with Polk County Legal Aid, assisting low-income Iowans who could not afford legal help. Ruth won election as Story County Attorney, becoming the first female elected to this position.
In 1974, Tom was elected to Congress from Iowa's Fifth Congressional District. His energetic, person-to-person campaign carried the day against an incumbent in a long-standing Republican district.
In 1984, after serving 10 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Tom challenged an incumbent Senator and won. Iowans returned him to the Senate in 1990, 1996 and again in 2002. In November 2008, Tom made history by becoming the first Iowa Democrat to win a fifth term in the U.S. Senate.
During his first term in Congress, Tom became the first member to create a Mobile Office, a specially equipped van that Harkin staff members use to bring congressional services to every one of Iowa's 99 counties each year. Though the vehicle has changed over the years (the current vehicle is engineered to run on E-85 ethanol), its purpose has not.
A commitment to the issues...
As a young senator, Tom was tapped by Senator Ted Kennedy to craft legislation to protect the civil rights of millions of Americans with physical and mental disabilities. Tom knew firsthand about the challenges facing people with disabilities from his late brother, Frank, who was deaf from an early age. What emerged from that process would later become Tom's signature legislative achievement — The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The ADA has become known as the "Emancipation Proclamation for people with disabilities." The legislation changed the landscape of America by requiring buildings and transportation to be wheelchair accessible, and to provide workplace accommodations for people with disabilities. To preserve the intent of the ADA after several court rulings weakened its standards, Tom and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced the ADA Amendments bill to ensure continuing protections from discrimination for all Americans with disabilities. It was signed into law in September 2008.
Tom has also worked to advance collaborative research in paralysis and to improve quality of life for those living with paralysis, including by creating a Clinical Trials Network to measure the effectiveness of rehabilitation therapies. His Christopher and Dana Reeve Act, named after the actor and his wife, became law in March 2009.
Tom also led the fight to lift former President Bush's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, which shows great promise for new treatments of conditions like Parkinson's, spinal cord injuries and juvenile diabetes. On March 9th 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order lifting those restrictions.
Tom has long believed that in America, we have a "sick care" system, not a health care system. Rather than treating people once they get sick, he believes that we should remove the barriers to a healthy lifestyle, reduce chronic disease and rein in the high cost of health care, creating a "wellness society" in America.
He has done this in two ways — first as chairman of the Senate panel that funds medical research, he led the effort between 1998 and 2003 (in tandem with Sen. Arlen Specter) to double funding for research into cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer's and other diseases. Second, as a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, he crafted the prevention and wellness title of the health reform bill, The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. This historic investment in prevention across the full spectrum — at the federal, clinical and community level — was signed into law as part of health reform.
As the chair of the Senate subcommittee that funds education, Tom has fought to improve education in Iowa and across the country. He has worked to reduce class size, give students better computer and Internet access, expand school counseling and safety programs and improve teacher training. He has also led the effort to modernize America's school infrastructure. Each year he secures funding to help school districts in Iowa update and repair their facilities.
Tom's dedication to agriculture dates back to 1975 when he first came to Congress and became a member of the Agriculture Committee. In that time, he has had the great privilege of serving as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, where he led efforts to enact the 2002 and 2007 farm bills. These bills greatly expanded federal support for renewable energy, strengthened the farm income safety net, preserved million and millions of acres of land through agriculture conservation efforts, invested hundreds of millions of dollars in small towns through rural development efforts and ensured tens of millions of Americans have access to sufficient and healthful food.
In September 2009, following the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, Tom became chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Tom believes that to serve in this capacity is to carry on the legacy of Senator Kennedy, who dedicated his life to ensuring that our economy works for all Americans, guaranteeing every child the opportunity to pursue a quality education and, of course, the cause of Kennedy's life: access to quality, affordable health care for all Americans.