Heller Welcomes Sen. Tom Harkin for Conversation with the Dean and Annual Distinguished Lurie Lecture

November 08, 2018

Sen. Tom Harkin with Dean David Weil during "Conversations with the Dean" in the Zinner Forum

On November 7, one day after the 2018 midterm elections, Heller welcomed retired U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA 1984-2014) for two talks that covered his decades-long advocacy for labor and disability rights.

Harkin’s visit began with the “Conversations with the Dean” event hosted by Dean David Weil in Zinner Forum. Dean Weil noted in his introduction that the two crossed paths during Weil’s time in Washington as administrator of the Wage and Hour Division in the Department of Labor.

Sen. Tom Harkin

The senator, who spent a total of 40 years in Congress (10 in the House of Representatives, then 30 in the Senate), described his path from small town Iowa to Capitol Hill. After college, he served as a Navy pilot in the Vietnam War, a harrowing experience that motivated him to become involved in politics when he returned to civilian life.

“I got in at the right time, and I got out at the right time,” said Harkin of his long career in Washington. He described his views on the evolving norms of government and political polarization.

Harkin also offered his thoughts on some of the trends he witnessed in the previous night’s midterm election results. Noting the widening political divide between Republican rural areas and Democratic suburban and urban areas, he advocated that “Democrats need to learn to speak to people in more rural areas. We used to do that. Not so much anymore.”

 The conversation also covered Harkin’s legacy as a proponent of labor unions and progressive workplace policy. Although he advocated several pieces of labor reform legislation to fortify workers’ rights, many were never signed into law, for reasons he saw as a lack of willingness within his own party to prioritize these issues. He sees this failure to respond to the needs of working-class Americans as a contributing factor to the rise in support for far-right politicians in rural areas.

Dean Weil gives Sen. Harkin a copy of his book, "The Fissured Workplace"

In the evening, Sen. Harkin returned to Heller as the featured speaker at the Lurie Institute’s annual Distinguished Lecture in Disability Policy. As the lead proponent of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, Harkin is well known for his long-time policy advocacy for the disability community. After his retirement from Congress in 2014, he founded the Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement at Drake University, which has a significant focus on disability policy.

Harkin’s lecture, titled “True Integration: Meaningful Work for People with Disabilities,” focused on the importance of promoting competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities. Harkin told the story of his own brother, who is Deaf, who was first forced into a job he hated as a baker before later flourishing as a machinist at a jet engine company. He also shared the story of Emilea Hillman, a woman with an intellectual disability who left a segregated workshop to successfully open her own coffee shop. 

“We need to do more to prepare youth with disabilities to work in competitive, integrated jobs, not sub-minimum wage, sheltered workshops,” said Harkin. “Sixty-five percent of adults with disabilities are not in the workforce. That’s a blot on our national character.”

Sen. Harkin spoke in front of a full house at Heller

Watch Sen. Harkin's conversation with Dean Weil, below:

Watch the Lurie Lecture, “True Integration: Meaningful Work for People with Disabilities,” below: