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The Race to Replace Labor Hero Tom Harkin


August 20, 2014

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IBEW activists in Iowa are working to get out the vote for labor-friendly candidate Bruce Braley.
Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user greghauenstein.

After 20 years in the Senate, one of the most eloquent advocates for the American labor movement, Tom Harkin, is retiring. In 2014, upon his induction into the Iowa AFL-CIO Hall of Fame, International President Edwin D. Hill presented Sen. Harkin an honorary union card.


“I was stunned when President Hill did that, but also proud, because it was recognition of what an incredible friend to labor he has been,” said Bill Hanes, business manager of Cedar Rapids Local 405. “Losing Tom Harkin is major for the labor movement, no question.”

The candidates vying to replace Harkin are from opposite sides of the state and opposite ends of the political spectrum. Four-term congressman Bruce Braley is a centrist Democrat from the industrial Northeast Iowa town of Waterloo who named Harkin as his mentor. Freshman state Sen. Joni Ernst is a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa state guard from Red Oak, a western Iowa farm town, who won a five-way Republican race for the nomination.

Hanes said that ideas have always been more important for his local than party affiliation and on the issues, the differences between the candidates are clear. Braley has been a vocal supporter of project labor agreements and protecting all workers’ right to collectively bargain. While Ernst has not taken a position on PLAs, she has called for the privatization of Social Security, an end to wind and solar generation tax credits and the complete repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

“We had our first experience with project labor agreements because of a Republican mayor, so we are open to finding friends wherever they are,” Hanes said.

But it is precisely on the bread-and-butter issues where Ernst falls short in Hanes’ view.

“She called replacing the income tax with a national retail sales tax a ‘great way to go’ even though it would slam working families and let the wealthiest Americans pay next to nothing,” Hanes said.

Just after the primary election in June, most non-partisan election observers thought Braley was the clear front runner. More than 65 percent of Iowans voted for Obama in 2012, and even though the state is evenly divided between Democrats, Republicans and independents, it has a history of splitting its senators between the two parties.

“Anyone who tells you this isn’t a 2-percent race doesn’t know what is going on in Iowa,” Hanes said.
The difference has been a torrent of money from national political action committees that can spend enormous sums of money on elections without disclosing their donors. Ernst was the only candidate in the Republican primary to get money from Americans for Prosperity, a conservative PAC that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide since 2008 on ads and candidates supporting drastic reductions in corporate and income taxes, minimal regulation of industry and an end to social safety net programs like Medicare.

Hanes said the flood of money from outside Iowa and the low turnout of off-year elections guarantee a close race.

“Every vote will count on Election Day,” Hanes said. “Bruce is the one true friend of working families in this election, so this needs to be taken very seriously.”


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