Today’s the day: the last Harkin Steak Fry

The 37th and final “Harkin Steak Fry” gets underway in a few hours and over the past few days I’ve been asked to describe the event and what might be expected today.

If this Steak Fry is like the ones that came before, it will be a rollicking outdoor pep rally for Iowa Democrats, with plenty of red-meat rhetoric served up in addition to the grilled steaks. This is not an event where candidates roll out a new policy paper. This is a fire-up-the-troops for the General Election event.

Senator Tom Harkin serves as the chief cheerleader. He comes armed with a speech laden with one-liners. Expect Republicans to be the target of his punchlines, as they have in the past. Last year, for example, Harkin listed the parade of potential Republican presidential candidates who’d made their way to Iowa. “We’ve endured visits by Rick Santorum, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz. Governor ‘Oops’ Perry is on his way,” Harkin said and the crowd booed the mention of each name. “All I can say, folks, is that the clown car is filling up pretty rapidly.”

In 2010, Harkin said he’d asked Sarah Palin to do the crowd count.. “She said it’s so big she can see it from Wasilla,” Harkin said, to hoots and howls from the crowd.

In 2003, Harkin’s Steak Fry attracted all the candidates competing for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination: “My friends, we are organized, we are mobilized, we are energized and, in words that even George Bush, can understand, we are ready to kick some elephant.”

This Sunday’s event will be staged on a hillside on the east side of Indianola. The field is used for launching balloons during the city’s annual balloon festival and it’s been used frequently for Harkin’s Steak Fry. The crowd will sit on blankets, lawn chairs or just right on the ground itself.

What might they hear from Hillary Clinton? As you know by now, this is her first appearance in Iowa since January 3, 2008, the night she finished third in the Iowa Caucuses. Clinton’s mere presence speaks volumes and, if she indeed is running in 2016, Iowa is the first event on the calendar of primaries and caucuses. Skipping Iowa’s Caucuses, as was suggested in May of 2007, would likely make the 2016 General Election more difficult for Clinton or any Democrat who secures the nomination, because Iowa will be a swing state. That was a reality for the Romney campaign in 2012 and it will be again in 2016.

Now, with an open race for the White House on both sides in 2016, if there’s not a vigorous campaign on the Democratic side, will Republicans amass a General Election ground game advantage through the Caucuses that will benefit the GOP’s nominee, whoever that may be?

Given the beheading of a Brit that is dominating the news today, Clinton is also presented with a clear path when it comes to foreign policy references in her speech. Stressing solidarity with our British allies — and, by extension, solidarity with Obama Administration foreign policy — will be expected. Whether she uses the speech to carve out any differences with Obama’s newly-defined approach in Syria is the open question.

A key event manager said Saturday that about 7000 tickets had been sold for today’s Steak Fry. When the event’s organizers expect the crowd to be akin to the 1300 who showed up last year rather than the 12,000 who showed up 2007, another venue on the west side of Indianola has been used. The Warren County Fairgrounds was where Barack Obama made his debut on Iowa’s political stage back in 2006.

Al Gore appeared at Steak Frys in 1995 and 1999. Gore’s ’99 appearance was staged inside a show ring on the fairgrounds.

The very first one, back in 1972, was held on the Kiernan farm in neighboring Madison County. Joan Kiernan was chair of the Madison County Democrats at the time. She and her husband, Gary, paid for the food so all the ticket money could go to the Harkin campaign. The steaks came from a meat locker in a small town nearby. Joan told me earlier this week there were 53 people at the first “fry” and, when Harkin ran again in 1974, the crowd for the second “fry” was only a tiny bit bigger. By the third one in 1976, a couple of farmers down the road who supported Harkin provided free beer.

The 1980 Steak Fry was the only one moved to another venue at the last minute because of the weather. Rain forced organizers to move everything from the farm into the church in Cumming, Harkin’s home town. (The event has never been cancelled due to the weather and today’s forecast is for sunny skies and mild temperatures.)

When Harkin decided to run for the U.S. Senate, the fundraiser became an every year affair and in the early ’80s the venue moved over to Warren County. The 1991 Harkin Steak Fry was the official launching pad for Harkin’s 1992 presidential campaign. That September 15, 1991 event was staged on a farm, with hay bales arranged as seating for the crowd of about 1800.

“George Herbert Walker Bush has got feet of clay,” Harkin said, “and I’m gonna take a hammer to ’em.”

When Harkin dropped out of the 1992, he endorsed Bill Clinton. Clinton then became the first big keynote speaker to come in for a Steak Fry. He spoke at the 1992 Steak Fry and Clinton spoke again in 1996 when the names “Bill Clinton” and “Tom Harkin” were both on the ballot.

Now, all these years later, Clinton and Harkin will share the same stage again, with Hillary Clinton getting top billing rather than the former president.

I’ll be back in a few hours with some thoughts about how Iowa Republicans view this event with scorn, puzzlement — and a dose of envy, too.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
About O.Kay Henderson

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