Former Senator Harkin’s annual Steak Fry was a Democratic political institution in Iowa for nearly 40 years. It had a national appeal as it drew presidential candidates to Iowa for Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. More importantly, it was the glue that held Iowa Democrats together. Iowa Democrats saw their party election fortunes rise and fall through all those political cycles, but they could always depend on the steady and focused leadership of Senator Tom Harkin.
As they battled for wins and suffered losses locally and nationally, Senator Harkin was always at the helm guiding the party. The Harkin Steak Fry was the single annual event that provided Iowa Democrats with the opportunity to celebrate his amazing leadership. It symbolized the continuing stability of a Democratic success that united Iowa Democrats for years.
Senator Harkin’s retirement and the loss of his Senate seat to Joni Ernst finds Iowa Democrats searching for strong leadership capable of reuniting a fractured party. Since the last Harkin Steak Fry in 2014, many Democrats have suggested reviving it. Harkin was interviewed by the Iowa Starting Line last year about bringing it back.
“I have had a lot of people ask me about reviving the Harkin Steak Fry,” Harkin said. “It brought people together at a critical time, but it took a lot of work and we never really made any money on it. It was just sort of a get-together event. We never lost money, but we didn’t make any money for the party or for my campaign. It was more about getting people together, getting them enthused about the campaigns. I wish we had something like that. It was good timing being after Labor Day and back-to-school. We had decent weather, it only rained on us twice in 38 years. It would be good to have something like that, right after Labor Day. It just takes a lot of work.”
One of those Democrats, Sean Bagniewski, Chair of Polk County Democrats, has been working for over a year to bring back the Steak Fry. Sean was elected as the new Polk County Chair in 2017 and has been successful in headlining Polk County events with national Democratic stars. Sean said he has been in discussions with Senator Harkin for several months attempting to get Harkin’s permission for Polk County Democrats to revive the Steak Fry. Senator Amy Klobachar was the featured guest at the Polk County Democrats spring dinner. He said the success of the spring dinner finally convinced Senator Harkin that the Polk Democrats had the skills to put together a Steak Fry.
The newly revived Polk County Steak Fry will differ considerably as a smaller version of the annual Harkin Steak Fry. The Harkin event would draw thousands while the first annual Polk County Steak Fry will likely be less than a thousand. However, organizing and feeding 800-900 hungry Iowa Democrats is no small feat. Bagniewski has a core group of about 10 volunteers, but it will require over 100 volunteers on the day of to successfully pull it off.
Bagniewski has two lieutenants, Kim Boggus and Lindsay Paulson, that are playing a crucial role in putting this monster event together. Boggus said she was surprised and enthused by folks that are already asking if this will become an annual event. Paulson said one of the greatest challenges is to create an event that will live up to the legacy created by Senator Harkin over 40 years.
Bagniewski chose the Des Moines Water Works Park as the outdoor venue. It is scheduled for September 30th from 12:00 to 4:00 PM. Tickets ($35) must be purchased in advance at: https://secure.actblue.com/donate/polksteakfry2017
Bagniewski recruited three rising stars in the Democratic Party as featured speakers: U.S. Representatives’ Cheri Bustos, Seth Moulton and Tim Ryan. According to Bagniewski, this isn’t a fundraising event but rather a party building event. He chose these three Representatives because of their prominence in the party and because they also offer interesting models for Iowa Democrats. Busto represents an Illinois urban and rural district that has been successful in winning in red areas. Ryan (Ohio) challenged Nancy Pelosi in her reelection as the House leader. Moulton has been mentioned as a potential presidential candidate and has some aides that have worked on past Iowa campaigns.
In addition to these three national figures, the Iowa Democratic gubernatorial and 3rd District candidates will speak. Troy Price, the Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, and Bill Stowe, the CEO Des Moines Waterworks, will also have speaking roles.
Bagniewski compared taking on the Steak Fry to inheriting a baby gorilla. Once you accept it, you wonder how to feed it and keep it under control! Hopefully, Sean will train his gorilla to reinvigorate Polk County Democrats and adopt bigger gorillas in the future.
by Rick Smith
Photo via Greg Hauenstein