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Pop Culture in Hart

Harkin’s Office Has Had Popcorn Machine for 20-Plus Years

Joe Hand, a staff assistant in the office of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (D), doesn’t have a window in his office, but he does have one of the most enviable views of any staffer who works a desk on Capitol Hill.

That’s because just an arms’ length beyond Hand’s computer monitor, sitting atop a dark wooden cabinet next to the Senator’s front door, sits a true classic from the world of entertainment manufacturing — a vintage red-and-white model 208W, produced more than two decades ago by Paragon-GMI International.

In layman’s terms, it’s a popcorn maker.

But amid a Capitol Hill work environment all too often defined by deadly serious issues, this little machine plays an important role in Harkin’s office. Each day it greets countless Hill visitors, staffers, passers-by and, of course, the Senator himself with a fun workday snack and bit of childhood nostalgia. And while having a unique food or beverage available in one’s Capitol Hill office is not unheard of, Harkin seems to have more than just a passing attachment to his popcorn maker.

“I have been in the Senate now for 20 years, so I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. But, I tell you, that popcorn machine has been the one constant,” Harkin said in an e-mail from Iowa last week. “Over the years, it has become one the most dependable members of my staff. A day without popcorn is like a day without sunshine.”

“He’s very particular about that machine,” admitted Hand, whose job description, along with answering phones and greeting guests, includes making more popcorn when the supply gets low. “If it breaks only he or [Office Manager Sonja Hoover] are allowed to fix it. … If he knows its going to be a late night he’ll ask us to make a new batch for him.”

When Harkin cleans the machine, “normally he takes it home and takes every piece apart and cleans it with carbon cleaner, then he’ll stand in his driveway and hose it off,” Hoover added.

The Senator’s love of his Paragon-GWI 208W was perhaps best exemplified during the anthrax attacks of 2001. After anthrax-laden letters shut down the Hart Senate Office Building, Capitol officials allowed each office to send two staffers back to the building to retrieve necessary items that would keep staffs working during the closure. Along with Rolodexes, medications and plane tickets, Harkin made sure his staffers rescued the popcorn machine from the building.

According to Hand, the office goes through three to four 30-ounce jars of popcorn a week. Not surprisingly, all of Harkin’s popcorn comes from an Iowa-based popcorn company called Jolly Time (in 2003, Iowa ranked fifth in the nation in popcorn acreage, behind Nebraska, Indiana, Ohio and Illinois). The Sioux City-based company sends Harkin’s office refills of oil and popcorn kernels for free whenever they get low.

According to one Capitol Police officer guarding the building last week, the enticing smell and free snack has made Harkin’s office a well-known stop for anyone who comes through Hart. For example, the popcorn is so loved by Senate pages that last fall a group of them brought Harkin a “best office” award, Hand said.

And while nationally U.S. popcorn exports averaged about $60 million in recent years with Canada and Mexico as the two biggest destinations, on Capitol Hill, Harkin staffers say their biggest popcorn export destination is probably right next door in Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s (D) office.

“We have a nice working relationship over the popcorn,” one Stabenow legislative correspondent said last week. “But I feel bad for the cats who have to sit in that office all day long. They probably have to get Tide with popcorn bleach to get the smell out. I guess you get used to it — like the person who wears a lot of cologne in the office.”

But Hand says that by now he’s immune to the constant smell of popcorn that fills his work environment. He did admit, however, that since he began working for Harkin he doesn’t eat too much popcorn outside the office.

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