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Council Bluffs' Turek in conversation as state's 'next Tom Harkin'
Paralympic Gold Medal winner climbed and crawled to 6-vote Statehouse win in a politically red, and stubbornly hilly, city in Western Iowa
There is, of course, only one Tom Harkin, a retired U.S. senator who constructed a legislative and political legacy few Democrats in Iowa — and indeed the nation — have.
For two generations in Congress — 40 years in the U.S. Senate and House — Harkin, always mindful of his humble beginnings in Cumming, Iowa — mastered the congressional process in ways large and small, seen vividly in daily life (the Americans With Disabilities Act) and unseen, but felt, and deeply so, by millions, such as his advocacy for rural hospitals and renewable fuels and underrepresented people across the globe.
Talk agriculture, rural life, high-speed Internet, health care in small towns, and other topics, and Harkin's name is there today, relevant, at the forefront, enduring, and tied to what used to be the currency of Iowa politics and government: deliverables.
Since 2015, the day Harkin left office and U.S Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, took the oath as his successor, the Iowa Democratic Party, on something of a wilderness trek for a king's ransom of reasons, many the Democrats' own fault, most not, has been in search of the next Tom Harkin — a recapturing of the sizzle of his steak fry fall days annually in Indianola.
One of the Democrats I've covered in recent years who comes as close as any can to showing the potential to inhabit the Harkin void, is State Rep. Josh Turek, a Council Bluffs Democrat and U.S. Paralympics basketball team medalist (two gold medals, one bronze.)
"I think something that has shaped me going forward is not only the challenges of growing up disabled, but also growing up disabled and poor," Turek said. "We shared clothes. We had the wrong color lunch tickets and I was bullied so badly actually when I was in sixth grade that I left public school and ended up going to a private school."
Turek made the remarks recently during a speech at the Harkin Institute on the Drake University campus in Des Moines. It was a fitting venue as the Harkin complex is intentionally and brilliantly one of the more accommodating structures in the United States for people with disabilities — Americans Harkin fought hard for — and he battled for many.
"I've come to believe that what doesn't kill you makes you ultimately stronger." Turek said.
It took that sort of strength for Turek to win as a Democratic in Western Iowa, even in a more urban area, Council Bluffs. Turek, the first fully disabled state legislator in Iowa history, captured the House seat in what is arguably one of the more challenging stretches of geography for door-knocking, regardless of age and ability level. The streets of Council Bluffs stubbornly turn quickly and jet up hills — and it can be a long walk from the street to a door.
In the 2022 race Turek climbed and "crawled" — the latter his own description — to 14,000 doors in House District 20. He won the seat by just six votes — 3,403 to 3,397.
"Not every individual with a disability has that ability to do so," Turek said.
What Turek also has is great — and rapidly developing — political skill and profile. He's a natural bridge-builder who was artfully careful not to attack Republicans during his Harkin Institute speech. His instinct is one of collaboration, to cross the aisle. Turek is earnest and prepared, disarming and smart — and quietly ambitious.
He's been a voice for the disabled, to be sure, but also for the working class, for educators. And he knows the world, having played professional basketball internationally after his Paralympics experience.
He's in early discussions in Democrat circles as possible gubernatorial-candidate material, but knowing Turek, that's not where he's headed. Turek is a more natural legislator, and with a global resume, far better suited for the Senate, and the diversity of Washington, D.C. — in the Senate as the 4th Congressional District is out of reach for the Democrats, firmly in the hands of the political estimable Congressman Randy Feenstra, R-Hull.
Turek smiled broadly when I offered this assessment during a recent conversation.
It's worth noting that one of the few political events at which the retired Harkin campaigned for Democrats in 2022 was in Council Bluffs in early August — for Turek. Harkin had a detailed conversation with Turek before agreeing to speak at the event.
Harkin authored the landmark civil rights bill, the Americans With Disabilities Act. Time itself was also essential for social change as well, Turek said.
"The ADA is only 30 years old," Turek said. "My generation now, we are the first true generation to finally have access to public spaces, to education, to occupation."
Another reason for lower participation rates from the disabled in government and the workforce is self doubt. Turek said..
"If you don't feel like you are meaningful to the process, you feel like this is irrelevant to you — who cares, blue, red, winner, loser — 'I don't matter to the process' (some disabled people think)," Turek said. "We have to dispel that rumor that the disabled population isn't relevant. We have to wake up and realize we are 15 percent of the population. We can swing every election by ourselves."
Turek has the competitive spirit to deliver on that strategy.
It came early to him.
Turek said he was drawn at 12 years of age to what he described as "wheelchair sports" — basketball, tennis, track — "all these amazing sports."
"The moment that I was able to compete against my own peers I just immediately fell in love with it, and dedicated everything I had to it," he said.
Below is the text of two exchanges the Iowa Mercury had with Turek at the Harkin Institute:
Iowa Mercury: “I had a long conversation with Senator Harkin about who the most consequential presidents were and he settled on FDR. But – and this is me talking — because FDR hid that disability and obscured it and didn't present as somebody with a disability, do you think he was really a representative of the disability community?
Rep. Josh Turek: "I do. I am intimately familiar with his story. I think that we can't now go back and judge these individuals in history through our spectrum. I think that the times would not have allowed him to be seen as weak, especially during World War II. I am not sure he could have gotten elected four times, and been around. The stigma on individuals with disabilities would have been seen as too much of a weakness. So he did what he had to do for those times, but I think unquestionably, he is one of our greatest presidents."
Iowa Mercury: "As somebody who has very likely faced physical obstacles getting into a restroom — maybe you have an anecdote where you couldn't get into a restroom because of lack of access — how has that affected your view on some of the hysteria about gender identity and people going into restrooms (not identified with their biological gender?)"
Rep. Josh Turek: "Profoundly shaped my position on that. I have had to go into the women's restroom many, many times just because the male restroom either wasn't wide enough for my wheelchair, I couldn't get my wheelchair in there,. Also, I think about all these individuals with disabilities who may have a caretaker with them who may need to go in there who is of the opposite sex. I also just have this real difficulty to understand bills and policy that, one, are mean-spirited, but two, they are specific to going after a minority group."
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