On Sunday I made my yearly trek to Indianola, Iowa for the 36th annual Harkin Steak Fry, the obligatory stop for all Democrats considering a run for the presidency. This year the guest of honor was Joe Biden, and the Castro Brothers, Julian and Joaquin, were also in attendance so it was a trip worth making in spite of the rain and blustery weather that sent me scrambling for cover on more than one occasion over the course of the event.
This year, because Joe Biden was the guest of honor and he was late arriving due to the weather, the program was a little different than it has been other years I’ve attended. While some of us schlepped over to the grill to snap pictures of the Veep and the Mayor of San Antonio flipping steaks, Iowa’s two Democratic Congressmen addressed the crowd. Dave Loebsack delivered a rousing speech on the middle class and his conviction that Braley will be just as good an ally in the Senate as Harkin, because he’s a hell of an ally in that snakepit they currently serve in, the U.S. House of Representatives.
When it was his turn, Braley continued the theme of fighting for the middle class, but he also wisely took the opportunity to address the activist base of Democratic volunteers, donors and loyal party members and asked them to help send him to the Senate because “we won’t have Obama’s 64 field offices in the state in 2014.” Tom Harkin later confirmed that he considers Bruce Braley the guardian of his legacy when he called him back to the podium while he was speaking and embraced him, telling the crowd point-blank that he wants to “pass the baton” to him because he will fight for the people who need a champion.
Ruth Harkin is always a crowd favorite, and every Democrat in Iowa knows that she, not her husband, was the first Harkin elected to serve in public office. At the time she was elected Prosecuting Attorney for Story County, she was the only female prosecutor in Iowa, and the only Democrat in the Story County courthouse. Two years later, when Tom ran for the House, they elected him, because it stood to reason that if she was that good, he couldn’t be that bad.
Julian Castro talked about the American Dream as not a sprint or a marathon, but as a relay. (It’s the same idea, but just far less likely to get him in trouble, as “you didn’t build that.”) He’s a mayor – he has a public office where the right person can actually make a measurable, quantifiable difference in the lives of the citizens he serves. And right now, at this very minute, batons are being placed in the hands of children in his city. This year, the city of San Antonio enacted universal all-day preschool for all four-year-olds.
In America, the way it’s supposed to work, we reward hard work with opportunity. That’s the deal. Pell Grants, Stafford loans, Perkins loans, work study…these things are supposed to be there to make it possible for people like the Castro Brothers – and yours truly, and any other number of bloggers to have passed through these parts – to get better educations than our families could afford to pay for because of those programs. In return, we work hard, we pay back our loans, we contribute to society and we take our place in the middle class. But for far too may people, the dream is slipping away; the baton is being dropped. That, Castro asserted, and the crowd heartily agreed, has to change.
It occurred to me when Joe Biden came to the stage that although I have been doing this since 2005, and I’ve been credentialed by both Obama-Biden campaigns and to cover so many Obama events that I have lost count – this was my first time seeing Mr. Biden in person…and that’s too bad, because while there isn’t a bum steer in the lot of them – the President, Mrs. Obama, or Dr. Biden – Joe is the most entertaining of them all, and I wasn’t fully aware before Sunday just what I had been missing.
The theme of the day was the middle class, and Joe wasn’t about to give it short shrift. He returned to the topic, noting that the economy grows from the middle out, not the top down; that it is more a set of shared values, like owning a home and sending the kids to college, than it is a number.
There was a lot of national press in attendance…Roger Simon from Politico and I shared a zip-strip and Dan Balz was at the next table. I’m sure that the national press was chagrined that the Vice President didn’t treat it like a campaign event, but instead chose to spend most of his time praising his friend of thirty years, Tom Harkin, who is retiring at the end of this term. Joe Biden reminded the crowd that it is Tom Harkin who is singularly responsible for the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that the ADA didn’t just change the way that Americans with disabilities are treated, but instead it changed society and how people with disabilities are perceived by the rest of us.
That, in and of itself, is a profound legacy.