Change is in the Air – 29th Annual Harkin Steak Fry
By Caroline Vernon
I can’t tell you how excited I was to finally be able to attend a Harkin Steak Fry. For the past two years, since I became politically active, I was never able to make the trip. Traditionally, the Scott County Democrats always fill an entire bus with eager democratic activists, hungry to hear the voice of strong leadership (as well as a sizzling steak or two). This year was no exception. Since there was no room on the bus, an extra dozen of us pooled our resources and rented a passenger van to make the trip. It rained the entire time we were on the road — we just knew we would end up getting drenched From what I gathered from some of our Steak Fry veterans, rain has also been a part of the annual tradition so we expected it, but as soon as we were about 20 miles outside Indianola, the sky opened up, the clouds dispersed, and the sun smiled down upon us the rest of the day. This was a very good omen
Many of us were there to represent the Wake-Up Walmart campaign, so we met up with the national team, donned our new t-shirts and headed for the food. It was very good, although, at first, I was wondering how I was going to cut my steak with a plastic butter knife but it was surprisingly tender and succulent There were so many folks at the tables, we had to split up to find a seat. No sooner I sat down, Tom Harkin, Barack Obama, and Chet Culver walked up and sat down at the reserved table nearby. What I witnessed from that point on is hard to describe. Folks were squeezing in all around them. They hardly had any elbow room to eat. Everyone was eager to get up close and personal. The Press Corps had at least 2 dozen microphones hanging over their food — I guess they wanted to listen to them chew or something. I was dumbfounded by the fact that folks would not just let them eat their food in peace since there was plenty of opportunity to speak to them afterward. The day had just begun.
Sure enough, after they had their fill of that USDA Iowa corn-fed beef (and all the fixins’), the three of them started working the crowd. The energy all around was electric! I knew it was going to be an incredible challenge withstanding the crowd in order to get a word with any of them, but as soon as I saw an opening I squeezed into it and found myself 2nd in line behind a reporter from CNN who was asking Senator Harkin what he thought about Obama being there, that sort of thing. Once it was my turn, I first thanked Senator Harkin for all of the good work he has done through the Americans with Disabilities Act. I then shared with him my personal experience of transitioning from disability while re-entering the workforce after a decade long bout with rheumatoid arthritis. I told him that after 10 years of being flat on my back, I finally found a drug treatment that gave me a whole new lease on life. Unfortunately, the cost of the drug is about $3,600 a month, but I was able to qualify for enrollment into the Patient Assistance Program which made it possible for me to get the drug directly from the pharmaceutical company at very little cost. Since then, I have improved steadily and as of last November, have re-entered the workforce. Here’s the catch, now that I am working, I run the risk of no longer qualifying to receive my medication. Without it, I will surely end up right back where I was 2 years ago – flat on my back. Senator Harkin was very compassionate and told me he thought the only way to address this issue is by changing the law in order to realistically assist those individuals who are transitioning. Given the make-up of our current legislature, there is obviously no hope of that happening, unless, of course, the Democrats manage to take back Congress (I hope you are all out there working hard to make this happen).
I next spoke with gubernatorial candidate, Chet Culver, asking him about the state of our environment, citing EPA emission reports which indicate that many counties in Iowa are in the top ten of the most polluted in the nation. Chet promised that once elected, he would do everything necessary to clean up our water and address corporate polluters by implementing stiffer fines and penalties. He said, “If they are going to pollute, they are going to pay.”
Unfortunately, I did not have the stamina necessary to withstand the pressure of the crowd while trying to get an audience with Obama. After being stepped on several times, I finally gave up on that idea. What a trip! It was about that time that all of the Congressional candidates took to the stage followed by Governor Vilsack who spoke on behalf of all them, before introducing Chet Culver.
It was an absolutely gorgeous day and everyone seemed to be in top form. Chet told us he wants to be the “people’s governor,” providing the people of Iowa with a positive vision for the future. He said he has a plan to make Iowa the renewable energy capitol of the world. Chet cited three keys to victory that he calls on all of us to do between now and November 7th; volunteer your time, post yard signs and bumper stickers, and get out the vote!
Chet then introduced Senator Harkin who took to the stage, welcoming everyone to the 29th Annual Harkin Steak Fry. I tell ya, it was like a crescendo from there on. Tom Harkin is the salt of the earth. I really enjoyed listening to him. I know Obama is a rock star, but as far as I’m concerned, Tom Harkin is “the rock.” He was warm, witty, enthusiastic, and yet serious – all at the same time. According to the Library of Congress, Senator Harkin holds the record for defeating more Republican incumbents than anyone else in the history of this country. That speaks volumes!
The Senator talked about moving Iowa forward and cited the single most important thing we can do as Iowans to promote progress is by electing more Democrats to the Iowa House and Senate. He thanked all of the candidates and sitting legislators for their commitment and dedication. Tom said he’s known Chet Culver since he was a little boy, joking that yes, Chet was once little. Tom mentioned he was proud to have also served with Chet’s dad and has been a close friend of the family for many years. Senator Harkin said he believes Chet has been the best Secretary of State in Iowa’s history.
The senator then directed his attention to the current administration and said, “The president just doesn’t get it, there is no virtue in staying the course if the course you are on is headed over a cliff. There is no virtue in being strong and wrong.” He spoke about how George Bush has squandered all of the good will from around the world that came as a result of 9/11. He said, “Bush has given the Iraqi government a blank check, payable with the lives of our American soldiers and marines.” He said Republicans are not only wrong about Iraq, but they’re wrong here at home. Tom said, “It’s wrong for the President to veto stem cell research that has so much promise to heal people, it’s wrong to block any increase in minimum wage for 9 years, it’s wrong to privatize social security and that’s why we need a Democratic Congress to stop them from doing it!”
The senator then talked about the Bush-Nussle budget that will drop millions of kids from the Head Start program, and includes the largest cuts to education in 28 years. Tom shared a recent incident when he was talking with a gentleman about the Republican’s trickle-down economics to which the man replied, “Trickle down? Heck, I haven’t had a drop – at this point I’d settle for a heavy dew!” The senator said the budget also provides less funding for our veterans. He became solemn for a moment before saying, “I’ll tell you what folks, if you want to get your guts torn out sometime, just go out to Walter Reed hospital like Barack and I have done and visit with some of those injured service men and women out there.” He said many of them have brain injuries which are now the signature injury of the war because of the IEDs and the way they explode. Senator Harkin called the administration cold-hearted for cutting funds allocated to the Brain Injury Traumatic Center at Walter Reed Hospital. Tom said it was funded at $14 million dollars last year, the Democrats wanted to increase it this year but the Bush-Nussle budget cut it to $7 million – they cut it in half! Senator Harkin said, “We may have different ideas on the when and what about Iraq but there is one thing that we better stand four-square on, when those veterans come home they’re going to get every ounce of healthcare and support they need to fulfill their lives!” The crowd really went crazy after that comment. Right on Senator Harkin!
Our good Senator then welcomed keynote speaker and rising Rock Star of the Democratic party, Barack Obama. Barack expressed his gratitude and admiration for Senator Harkin, thanking him for his steadfast commitment to his state, his country and to the values that propelled into public office in the first place. He also thanked Governor Vilsack for his leadership – he said that folks in Illinois are watching and are proud to see what Iowa has been doing.
Barack expressed his belief that some people go to Washington with the best of intentions, but after a while they find themselves representing Washington to their constituents instead of representing their Constituents in Washington. He said it’s a hard thing to resist because it’s easy to get comfortable and become institutionalized – it’s easy to forget why you went there in the first place. He said we have a lot of work to do all across the country, citing everywhere he goes he gets a sense that people are wanting change. He said there is a certain anxiety about the future and although he found that folks still dream big dreams, they have a sense that their leaders have forgotten how. Speaking of change, during most of the speeches, I happened to notice 4 large, beautiful, Monarch butterflies that kept panning above the crowd – flying back and forth. The stage was set in front of a big red barn that had a huge American flag serving as a backdrop. Almost all of the speakers were talking about change – One of the Monarchs fluttered up on stage and became part of the scenic backdrop. I thought of this as another good omen since butterflies often represent change and total transformation. Won’t that be great!?
Previously a community organizer, a civil rights lawyer and a law professor, Obama shared an account of the first time someone asked him to run for office when a seat in the Illinois state house had opened up and he said he did what every wise man does when confronted with such a decision, “I prayed on it…. and I asked my wife. And after consulting those higher two powers I decided to get into the race!” That comment was certain to score points with all the women in the crowd!
On the night before the general election in his race for the US Senate, he was at a rally getting ready to speak when staff came up to him and asked if he would come back stage to speak with a woman who had traveled far to see him. He agreed to do so and when he went back stage the woman said she had already voted for him via absentee ballot. She told him to keep up the good work and they had a nice little chat. What was remarkable about the woman was that she was born in Louisiana in 1899 – her name was Marguerite Lewis. She was 105 years old. Barack said he thought about everything she had said to him. He thought about all the changes she has seen in her life — how she had seen women win the right to vote, how she had seen the first world war, the great depression and then a second world war. She had seen her brothers, uncles, and cousins returning from yet another war and still sitting in the back of the bus. She had seen how FDR lifted America out of it’s fear, lifted millions out of poverty and provided millions with opportunities written through the GI bill. She saw how he made sure that seniors had security in their retirement, and that veterans were fully cared for. She saw how unions helped an entire middle class build itself throughout the heartland and saw immigrants travel from distant shores in search of the idea called America. He thought about how Marguerite Lewis, despite the circumstances of her birth, believed in the same idea – how she believed it with all of her heart and all of her soul. She had seen all this progress taking place — Obama reflected on how she had decided at some point it’s going to be her turn; that America will one day also bring her into the blanket of it’s protection. And then she saw a glimmering light of hope on the horizon, the civil rights movement. Marguerite understands that in America, we don’t settle for quality for some, or opportunity for a few — we don’t settle in America. Everyone has an obligation not just to ourselves but to each other — she understood that. Barack said whenever he’s feeling cynical he thinks of Marguerite Lewis. He said if Marguerite isn’t cynical given everything she has seen, then he has no right to be cynical. He then addressed the crowd and said if any of us start feeling cynical we’ve got to remind ourselves that our parents, our grandparents, and great grandparents have overcome much greater challenges than the ones we face today, although he made it clear that we face real challenges in America today – we are truly at a crossroads in this nation.
Barack shared that all across America, people are struggling because they sense that in a new globalized world we have given away our power, our communications, and changes in technology, not only to our competitors, but to those who seek to destroy our way of life. He said people are feeling anxious because they see the possibility that maybe their children won’t do as well as they did, recognizing that our children are going to have to compete with folks not only in our own communities, but with communities all over the world. He said, if we don’t make sure we’re preparing our children, we may be the first generation in a very long time in which our children inherit an America that is a little bit meaner and a little bit poorer than the one we inherited from our parents. And that’s not acceptable.
I don’t think there was an issue that he didn’t address. He said it all comes down to strong and honest leadership. Barack quoted Newt Gingrich – someone he doesn’t normally quote, but he shared an instance where folks were asking Newt, given all the problems the Republicans have had managing the country, the economy, the war in Iraq, what do you think is going to happen in this election? Newt responded, “If I was advising the Democrats in this election, I gotta admit I would just use two words to campaign; those two words are “had enough.” Barack then told the crowd, “I don’t know about you, but I think ol’ Newt is on to something, because I’ve had enough!” He then went through the litany of misplaced priorities and bad policies brought about by this administration and the Republican Congress. The crowd was on their feet the entire time!
Barack also talked about the importance of having hope. He said the challenge we have in this election raises the question, what are we going to do to be involved and be engaged in order to make sure that we have a brighter future for our kids? He asked, what are each of us going to do, not just here in Iowa, but all across the country to capture that sense of hope that has been lost over the last 6 years – and what are we going to say yes to? He said it’s not enough just to say no to Bush and this Republican Congress. He said the Democrats have to be the party of opportunity. We need to create an education system of life-long learning for every single child in America so they can compete all across the world. He said we have to say yes to the idea that we must invest in science and technology. He also said we need to stop giving tax breaks to companies that send jobs overseas and to invest in those companies that stay right here at home. I know that's right! If companies aren't going to invest in America, America shouldn't be investing in them.
In closing, Senator Obama told the crowd, “It’s time for everyone to kick off their bedroom slippers and put on their marching shoes!” After listening to all of the wonderful speeches, I felt like running out to get a trumpet and a baton to match my shoes!