JOHNSTON, Iowa — With plans to retire from elective office in 2014, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin said Friday his final two years in Washington will seem more like life as a congressman than that of a senator.
Harkin, 73, is no stranger to that congressional view, having spent five terms in the U.S. House before winning five, six-year terms in the U.S. Senate.
Interviewed on Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” show, Harkin said he still has things he wants to accomplish before he steps down. Those include continued constituent work and issues dealing with retirement programs, education from early childhood through college, and employing Americans with disabilities at the top of his list.
“I’m not passing the torch sitting down. I intend to pass it as a running relay,” Harkin told reporters after the IPTV taping. “I’ve got a lot on my plate.”
Harkin touched off speculation and political jockeying in Iowa a week ago when he made a surprise announcement that he would not run for re-election in 2014. He said he has spoken to U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who has expressed interest in Harkin’s Senate seat.
But Harkin indicated “I’m not anointing anyone” when the first open Senate seat in Iowa is contested in two years.
Harkin said he was certain the 2014 Senate race “will be hotly contested” given that the state is evenly divided and very competitive between Democrats and Republicans. He said he would be active in the campaign and would support his party’s nominee unless the candidate is someone with a significant different political philosophy than his.
“I think our party in this state is strong. We proved it in just the last election,” he said. “I think as long as the Democrats pick a good, smart, savvy individual who knows how to organize a campaign and can raise the money, I think we have every reason to believe that that person can hold onto this Senate seat.”
Harkin said he has not decided what will happen to the nearly $3 million he has in his campaign war chest now that he has decided not to seek a sixth term.
He asked his staff to determine the parameters for the campaign money he has raised but not used. One option might be to donate the funds to the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State University, although he acknowledged the institute’s final home may still be in flux having also spoken recently with officials at Drake University in Des Moines.
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“I feel I have an obligation not to leave my papers anywhere where there would be restrictions on it, on my papers or on the research that may be done with them,” said Harkin, who is an ISU graduate. “I want full, unfettered academic freedom for my papers. To this extent, that has not been forthcoming from the president of Iowa State.”
Harkin said ISU officials approached him a couple years ago with the institute proposal. He said the documents are a “treasure trove” of information about how the Americans with Disabilities Act came into being and other historical records. He wants to make certain they are fully accessible to researchers, students, faculty and other interested people.
“All I can control is my papers,” he said. “This is my property. This is my life.”
On another topic, Harkin said he planned to support former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., as President Barack Obama’s nominee to be U.S. defense secretary “unless something comes out that I don’t know about.” He said he is scheduled to meet with Hagel next week and was surprised he is facing tough challenges from fellow Republicans, calling him a “unique thinker” who received two Purple Heart medals as an infantry squad leader in Vietnam.
“Here’s somebody who’s a grunt,” said Harkin, also a Vietnam War veteran. “We’ve never had a grunt as defense secretary — I mean somebody who was in the trenches, wounded, being down there in the mud and the dirt, fighting — I’d like to see someone like that as secretary of defense.”