Harkin's 30th Steak Fry May Be One Of His Biggest
Tom Harkin’s streak of good luck with the weather is likely to stay intact. In 29 years, the annual Harkin Steak Fry has never been rained out, and Sunday’s forecast for Indianola is sunny to partly cloudy and breezy with a high of 76 degrees.
Sunday’s forecast also calls for heavy attendance at Harkin’s 30th Steak Fry, as Indianola becomes Democratic Party Ground Zero for the day. With his own re-election coming up next year, Harkin has lined up all six leading Democratic presidential candidates – Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Barack Obama and Bill Richardson.
As of Thursday morning, the Harkin campaign had issued 137 press credentials, said spokesman Matt Paul, and had sold 7,000 tickets at $30 a pop for regular folks ($200 to $500 for hosts and sponsors). For that you get some meat and side dishes in a tent-and-picnic-table atmosphere, the company of most of the players in the Iowa Democratic Party, and a old-fashioned Democratic stem-winder Harkin speech. The host revels in the home-court advantage and the friendly partisan crowd, and usually rolls out a new joke at the expense of the GOP.
And you get the special guests.
The Steak Fry attendance record was set in 2003, ironically the year with the worst weather and the most-muddy members of presidential campaign staffs. About 12,000 people braved the iffy weather to see that year’s candidates. But the wannabes were trumped by the big guest -- former President Bill Clinton.
That 2003 appearance was Clinton’s third Steak Fry visit. He drew 8,000 folks to Indianola as a sitting president seeking re-election in 1996, alongside Harkin who was also on the ballot that year. In 1992 Clinton arrived as the Democratic nominee.
Only a few months earlier, Harkin had been Clinton’s rival for the nomination. 1991 was probably the most memorable Steak Fry of all, as Harkin used the event to formally announce his presidential candidacy. For those of you who are watching the caucus and primary front-loading, and thinking Republican Fred Thompson entered the race late, check your 1991 calendars. It was Sept. 15 – and Harkin wasn’t even the last candidate in the race, as both Clinton and Bob Kerrey announced later.
“George Herbert Walker Bush has got feet of clay,” Harkin said of the then-incumbent in 1991, “and I’m gonna take a hammer to them.” Covering the event that year for WSUI radio, I noticed that most reporters got the quote wrong in their copy. Harkin’s advance script said, “I intend to take a hammer to them,” and most stories used the scripted version rather than the actual one. Back then, radio reporters were editing real, physical tape –- NOT computer files -- with razor blades and rocking reels back and forth, so we knew what the quotation really said.
The 1991 Steak Fry was also the last year the event was held at its original location near Winterset in Madison County. The very first Steak Fry, attended by 20 people at a price of $2, began as just one small event of many, hosted by some of then-congressional candidate Tom Harkin's Madison County supporters in 1972 (it wasn't annual at first). The Steak Fry grew to become Harkin's centerpiece event, and expanded exponentially beginning in 1990, the year Harkin sought his second Senate term. About 900 people attended that year, and 1,800 showed up for the presidential announcement in 1991. The event had outgrown its original home, which lacked the electricity and water needed for that many attendees. So in 1992, with presidential nominee Clinton on the program, the Steak Fry moved to its new home at Indianola’s Balloon Field. Attendance leaped to 5,000.
Vice President Al Gore was the big attraction twice. He drew 2,000 people in 1995, the year before Harkin’s re-election and an uncontested re-elect Clinton caucus. The caucuses were contested in 1999, but Harkin endorsed Gore early. So the veep got a solo shot while Bill Bradley, his sole rival, was left out.
Harkin had not yet made a presidential endorsement at the time of the 2003 Steak Fry. Supporters of the candidate he eventually backed, Howard Dean, wore shirts that said, “Hey Harkin! These steaks are DEAN-licious!” An all-out sign war erupted –- mud-slinging, you might say, given the conditions. That won’t happen Sunday. The six campaigns have each been assigned a sign area chosen at random. The speaking order was also set at random.
Neither nominee John Kerry nor running mate John Edwards made it out for the 2004 Steak Fry, so the crowd of 4,000 heard Elizabeth Edwards speak, Sheryl Crow sing, and Tom Arnold do ... whatever it is that Tom Arnold does.
One of this year’s speakers, Barack Obama, is coming to his second consecutive Steak Fry. In September 2006, the speculation about an Obama presidential bid was already starting. The 2006 Steak Fry, Obama’s first big political stop in Iowa, fueled the speculation.
John Edwards is on an every-other-year cycle, speaking at the Steak Fry in 2003, keynoting the event in 2005 and returning this year. Other notable Steak Fry speakers have included the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, consultant and pundit James Carville, and one former Republican –- independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who left the GOP in 2001 and gave the Democrats control of the Senate through the end of 2002. His 2002 Steak Fry appearance was one of his first campaign appearances for a Democrat.
This year’s Steak Fry also features something not seen in many a year: three incumbent Iowa Democratic congressmen. Leonard Boswell, Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack will be in attendance. The last time Iowa had three Democratic House members was in 1984, the year Harkin was first elected to the Senate.
Also slated to speak Sunday are 4th Congressional District challenger Selden Spencer and Lt. Gov. Patty Judge.