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Harkin, Thomas Richard

Published onAug 18, 2021
Harkin, Thomas Richard

(November 19, 1939 - )

Quick Facts

Alumnus Thomas Harkin had a long political career, serving as U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator and campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president in 1992.


Thomas Harkin was born in Cumming, Iowa, the son of Patrick and Frances Harkin. His father was an Irish American coalminer and his mother was an immigrant from Slovenia. Along with his three brothers and two sisters, the Harkins shared a two bedroom home in Cumming. His mother passed away when he was a young boy and his father died of black-lung disease. Harkin attended Dowling Catholic High School in Des Moines, Iowa. He graduated in 1958, receiving a Navy ROTC scholarship at Iowa State University. Harkin started as an Engineering major at ISU before changing his major to Government and Economics. He was a member of the Young Democrats and Delta Sigma Phi fraternity. Upon graduation in 1962, he joined the United States Navy as an active-duty jet pilot and served until 1967. He continued his service in the Naval Reserves.

In 1968, Harkin married Ruth Raduenz, a Minnesota native. The Harkins moved to Washington, D.C. where they both attended Catholic University of America Law School. During this time, Tom Harkin also served as an aide to Congressman Neal Smith of Iowa’s 5th district.

The Harkins graduated in the same class at Catholic University of America Law School in 1972. They returned to Iowa, settling in Ames. Tom Harkin began working with Polk County Legal Aid. He ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives in this year, losing to incumbent Republican William Scherle. Ruth Harkin won election as Story County Attorney.

In 1974, Harkin won election to represent Iowa’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. This same year, he was awarded the Outstanding Young Alumni Award from Iowa State University. During his first term, Harkin became the first member of Congress to create a mobile office — a van that Harkin staff members used to bring constituent services to Iowa’s 99 counties. He served five terms as a Congressman before defeating Republican Senator Roger Jepsen to begin a 30-year tenure as a United States Senator. He defeated Republican contenders in 1990, 1996, 2002, and 2008. During his time in the Senate, Harkin served as Chairman of the Agriculture Committee as well as the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). He is best known for spearheading passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination based on disability. Not only did the bill make sidewalks and buildings accessible to people with disabilities, but it also required that services such as education and job training be accessible to all.

Harkin ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1992. While he won the Iowa Caucuses with over 75% of the vote, he lost support in New Hampshire and the subsequent primaries. Harkin withdrew from the primary race on March 9, 1992 after the Nevada Caucus. In the end, he lost the Democratic Party nomination to Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

Serving as a senator on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Harkin fought to keep college affordable. To do so, he worked to expand access to Pell Grants, the cornerstone of federal student financial aid programs and the gateway that allows low-income students to attend college. During his career, Harkin more than doubled the amount of Pell grant aid that a student may receive each year. He also worked to pass the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act which required all new federal student loans to originate through the Direct Loan program, where they are insulated from market swings and can guarantee students access to affordable college loans and low interest rates.

Harkin was committed to maintaining Iowa State University’s standing as one of the premier land-grant universities. He served an instrumental role in securing direct funding for buildings, projects, and programs at ISU in a number of areas including agriculture, biofuels, energy, food safety, rural development, transportation, and veterinary research. Senator Harkin worked to secure more than $468 million in federal funds to construct the National Animal Disease Center in Ames. He also ensured federal support for the Ames Lab and provided support for the specific areas of Department of Energy funding beneficial to the lab. In addition to his, he secured USDA funding for building construction and research that focused on new uses of agricultural materials. Harkin also helped to secure funds for the Center of Nondestructive Evaluation. He was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2004.

Harkin decided not to seek reelection in 2014. He and his wife have two daughters and three grandchildren.

Selected Sources

Harkin’s papers are housed in Drake University, Archives & Special Collections, Des Moines, Iowa.

Harkin, Tom and Thomas, C. E. Five Minutes to Midnight: Why the Nuclear Threat Is Growing Faster Than Ever, Carol Publishing Corporation, 1990.

 "Ruth Harkin reflects on 50 years of marriage: 'Maybe the beginning was never as fragile as it seemed'". Des Moines Register, Nov. 15, 2018.

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