Harkin, on not seeking reelection: “I just sense that it’s time.” (AUDIO)

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin shocked much of the Iowa Democratic Party establishment this morning by announcing he will not seek reelection in 2014.  Harkin spoke to members of the Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee at about 10:30.

AUDIO : of Harkin

Harkin recounted some of his legislative accomplishments as he spoke with the committee, some of whom sat with tears rolling down their cheeks, then Harkin concluded with what you can hear by clicking on the link above.  The text is below.

“I’m not quitting today,” Harkin said. “This is not a time for legacy talks or anything like this. It’s a time for looking ahead. It’s a time for all of us, now, to renew our vigor, to make sure that we find the best candidate possible and to encourage others, as things start to move around here, that we really get behind these good candidates and bring them in,” Harkin said. “And so, this is not a goodbye speech. I’m not saying goodbye folks. I’m going to be very much a part of you for the next two years and beyond. Even after I leave the Senate, I don’t intend to get lost some place. I’m very much involved in the policies of our country, meeting that moral test of government that I spoke about when I first started. It’s my life, I just am going to do it in a different way now, two years from now.”  

Sue Dvorsky, the out-going chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, spoke to me right after Harkin finished his remarks.

“It was a surprise and what I said to him was that all anybody wants to know is that he’s O. K. and he absolutely is and he is doing the right thing, as he always done the right,” Dvorsky said, her eyes red with tears.  “…Tom Harkin is personally connected to virtually every Iowa Democrat…He is our leader. He is our heart and our soul….It’s a little earthquaky…We were surprised.” 

During an interview with me/Radio Iowa today, Harkin said he had made the decision not to seek reelection before this past week’s vote on the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate. (Harkin sought bigger changes than were made.) Harkin said he’s been thinking about retirement since the last election.

“It boils down to two things: a promise I made to my wife, Ruth, and to myself, that we were going to live together and do some things together that we’ve often talked about, never been able to do, but we want to do it before it’s too late.  We’re both in great health. I have no health problems whatsoever. I’m very blessed in that way. Both of us are, but there are some things that we want to do that we’ve never been able to do. As you know, this job is pretty all-consuming,” Harkin said.

“Secondly, I’ve been there 40 years. I’m 73. By the time I run, I’d be 75. By the end of this term I will have been in the House and Senate for 40 years. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to my fellow Iowans for giving me this wonderful opportunity for 40 years, but it’s now somebody else’s turn. I just feel that way. It’s somebody else’s turn. It’s time for me to step aside. There’s a lot of younger Iowans out there, new people that, and by my stepping aside, as I said today, is cascades down. It opens up new opportunities for a lot of younger Iowans to move up and to take new positions of authority and responsibility and I think that’s not only good for our party, it’s good for our state and for our nation, so it’s just somebody else’s turn.”

Harkin said he does not have a ”favorite” to succeed him.

“I don’t think that it’s my job to try to pick somebody,” Harkin said. “That’s up to the Democrats to do….I hope the Democrats pick a smart, savvy, pragmatic person to run. We’ll see who emerges.”

Leaving now gives a candidate/candidates time to prepare, Harkin said.

“It opens it up and gives someone time to start to organize and think seriously about this,” Harkin said. “Unfortunately, but true, that campaigns today are more than just three- or four- or six-month – they’re two-year efforts to organize and to raise the necessary funds and stuff so I wanted to do this now to give people those opportunities and of course the same opportunity, someone said, ’Yeah, that gives the Democrats opportunity. It gives the Republicans opportunity, too.’ I said, ‘That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that.’ Iowa races, as you know, are always pretty good contests.”

Following up on his original statement, I asked Harkin what it is that he and Ruth want to do. Harkin said he and his wife talked about it on the plane from D.C. to Iowa.

“Ruth said: ”We’re going to take dancing lessons.’ I said, ‘You’re right,’” Harkin told Radio Iowa. “We’ve been married 45 years. She’s been on my case for about 40 of those years, at least, to take dancing lessons. She’s great at music and all that kind of stuff and I never have been and we’ve talked about it and I’m not saying I couldn’t have done, but I always had an excuse not to do it, so now, Ruth and I are going to take some dancing lessons.”

Iowa’s other U.S. Senator, Chuck Grassley, said last year health considerations were a factor in his own decision whether to run, because Grassley doesn’t want to wind up like Strom Thurmond or Robert Byrd, staying in the senate as their health deteriorated.  I mentioned Grassley’s statement to Harkin.

“I’m very fortunate to be able to leave the senate on these terms. I’m very healthy,” Harkin said. “I have no fear of losing an election. I expect to have a tough race, what the heck, but I think I can raise the money and organize a successful campaign in Iowa. It’s just, you know — it’s time. I wish I could put it more profoundly than that. I just sense that it’s time.”

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.