DUBUQUE, Iowa—Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, all but endorsed Rep. Bruce Braley to succeed the six-term senator when he leaves office at the end of 2014. In a speech Saturday night at a labor union ceremony in Dubuque, Harkin showered praise on Braley and tacitly backed the politician he has groomed for higher office since 2006.
“There’s a saying in the Senate, that—you’ll learn this Braley,” Harkin said to audience laughter and enthusiastic applause at the start of his 18-minute speech. “There’s a saying in the senate that a senator is a constitutional impediment to the smooth functioning of staff,” Harkin said, complimenting his constituent case workers.
The 14th annual Labor Hall of Fame induction dinner, held at the city-owned Mystique Casino, drew luminaries from Dubuque’s political class including state representatives Pat Murphy and Chuck Isenhart, state Senate president Pam Jochum, and mayor Roy Buol. Democratic politicians offered heavy praise for their key constituency: organized labor.
“I’ve got some kind of a speech here,” Harkin said, pulling index cards out of his blazer. “But, you know what? I’m gonna speak to you from the heart. I love my job, I love the Senate,” Harkin continued, his voice quivering. “I love the people I represent, and I especially love the people of Dubuque. Well, you might say, ‘If you love us so much, why are you quitting, why are you leaving?’”
“You know, it’s time,” he said. “Don’t hang on to power and prestige all the time—no. There’s a time to give it up. There’s a time to move on. There’s a time for somebody else’s turn to do this job—somebody younger, somebody who’s smart, somebody who’s got a lot of savvy, who can organize and continue the kind of progressive representation that I’ve been privileged to give to you all these years.”
To no one’s surprise, Harkin then used those exact adjectives to describe Braley.
“I’m very much encouraged that we have someone looking at this position. Now, I’m not telling anyone how to vote… but, I see Congressman Braley is here tonight,” Harkin said to hoots and applause from the audience. “I’ve watched him for a long time… I watched him campaign in 2006, and I said, ‘Boy, here’s someone—I think this guy is smart, he’s savvy, he’s progressive, he knows how to organize, he represents all the right things.”
Harkin stopped just short of a formal endorsement, but everyone in the audience understood that Harkin prefers Braley as his successor and will put his political machine behind the Waterloo-based trial lawyer.
“I know he’s looking at different options right now. I don’t wanna be involved in any primary thing or anything like that, but I will tell you this,” Harkin said, raising his voice with passion: “If Bruce Braley is the candidate, I will work every day and every night to make sure that he does succeed.”
The crowd, about 160 union members and liberal activists, erupted with sustained applause and gave Harkin a standing ovation.
“Well, I feel the same way,” Harkin said. “I say to all my friends, especially in organized labor, I’m a labor guy… I’ve always been a strong supporter of organized labor. I’m with you in this regard always: we are going to make sure that this state stays in progressive, pro-labor, compassionate, caring hands when we elect a new senator two years from now.”
Labor union support seems to have coalesced around Braley to replace Harkin. Several attendees expressed open disdain for former Gov. Chet Culver, the son of former Sen. John Culver, who is also reportedly considering running for Harkin’s seat. Union leaders want a fighter: someone who will aggressively and unabashedly defend the interests of big labor, which has lost influence in Iowa and nationally. In 1984, when Harkin was elected to the U.S. Senate, 181,182, or 17.1 percent, of Iowans were members of a labor union. In 2012, that number dropped to 145,000, or 10.4 percent of the state workforce.
“If Culver runs, I will rip off his leg and beat him to death with it,” said Bruce Clark, the president of the Dubuque Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. Clark said Dubuque union members strongly supported Culver in 2010 but were offended when he wouldn’t even get off a bus to publicly enter the Dubuque Labor Temple during his reelection campaign as he positioned himself as a business-friendly centrist.
After Harkin’s speech, Braley took the stage, noting that he first met Harkin at a Democratic event at Iowa State University in 1978—“and Tom and I have been friends ever since I met him that day.”
Braley said he met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and official with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Thursday and told them “no one will ever fill Tom Harkin’s shoes.”
“But given the incredible sacrifice and the extraordinary achievements that Tom Harkin has brought to this state, when he walks out of the United States Senate for the last time, he deserves to have someone who shares his populist progressive values walk in to take his desk,” he said.
Braley cast himself as that candidate, pointing to his leadership on advancing issues important to labor unions.
“I never would have ever been elected to Congress without my friends in labor,” Braley said. “I owe you a huge debt of gratitude.”
Braley pulled a pair of worn work boots out of a paper bag during the speech, telling the union members that the 32-year-old footwear will be featured next month at an art exhibit in Los Angeles along with a copy of the Congressional Record detailing Braley’s vote for the “Employee Free Choice Act,” which critics call “card check.” Braley said he wore the boots during a stint as a college-aged laborer “out in the hot sun, doing back-breaking work and having the creosote fumes from the wood we were working with rise up and burn the skin off of my face.”
The bill would allow union organizers to impose a labor union on a company by convincing—some say pressuring—a majority of employees to sign a card instead of a secret ballot vote. It passed the House in 2007 but centrist Democrats and Republicans blocked the measure in the Senate.
Braley left no doubt that he will return to seek the endorsement of union leaders while seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate next year. Asked if he planned to make a formal campaign announcement, Braley simply said, “not tonight.”
Walt Pregler, one of the evening’s honorees and the chairman of the Dubuque County Democrats, supports Braley’s bid.
“Bruce, if you run for the U.S. Senate, and you get elected, I’ll buy you a pair of steel-toed combat boots so you can give [Sen. Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell everything he deserves,” he said.
[photo: Sunday’s Telegraph Herald featured a photo of the two lawmakers meeting at the event with the caption: Next in line?]
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