Staffer Remembered for Skill, Passion

Posted January 11, 2008 at 5:16pm

A longtime staffer for former Rep. Neal Smith (D-Iowa) died earlier this month of complications from diabetes. [IMGCAP(1)]

Tom Dawson, who served as administrative assistant and chief of staff for Smith for 26 years, died Jan. 4 in Maryland. He was 70.

Dawson worked for Smith from 1969 to 1995 — over which time Smith became the longest-serving Iowan in House history. Because of Smith’s considerable seniority, Dawson turned into the go-to guy for all of Iowa’s Members, the 86-year-old Smith said in an interview last week.

“You might as well say he worked for the whole Iowa delegation, because I was the dean of the delegation and we tried to work as a delegation,” Smith said. “Anything that affected Iowa, well, we wanted everybody to know what it was and for everyone to do what they thought they could to help. We had meetings and he was the leader on the staff end.”

After 36 years in Congress, Smith was the third-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee when he was defeated in 1994, and he chaired the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Health and Human Services spending bill. Dawson took the lead on that subcommittee, Smith said.

“He was very well-informed on Health and Human Services stuff,” Smith said. “His father was a doctor.”

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin first met Dawson when they worked for the Iowa Democratic Party in the late 1960s. Harkin followed him to Washington as a fellow aide to Smith in 1970, and they continued their relationship when Harkin was elected to the House in 1974.

“Tom’s life was dedicated to public service, especially in regards to helping the people of Iowa,” Harkin said in a statement last week. “He was a valuable activist with the Democratic Party, which is where I met him in the 1960s. But, while he held the values of our party very dear, he treated everyone he met, Democrat or Republican, with the utmost respect and sense of fairness.

“As a member of Congressman Smith’s staff, he was a straight shooter who took his responsibility to constituents very seriously, serving each one with great skill and compassion.”

Dawson was born and raised in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and studied political science at the University of Wyoming, graduating in 1960. After three years as a U.S. Army intelligence officer in Germany, he served as finance chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party from 1966 to 1969.

Smith said Dawson had gained a reputation as a hard-working young Democrat, and brought him on staff in 1969.

Dawson was an active member of the House Administrative Assistant/Chief of Staff Association, which holds social and professional events for chiefs of staff. He was the first two-term president of the group, which was founded in 1973. He also served two terms as president of its alumni association.

After Smith lost his bid for re-election in 1994, Dawson founded a D.C.-based government consulting firm that served Iowa companies and interests.

Mark Halverson, staff director of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee that Harkin chairs, remembered Dawson fondly from their work together in Congress and through Dawson’s government affairs shop.

“Tom was just a really well-rounded guy. He always had a book or historical reference,” Halverson said. “He was a very deep source of knowledge on things, and the nicest guy in the world. [He was] always helpful to people.”

Smith shared that sentiment.

“He had the ability to work with all of the staffs without regard to political affiliation,” Smith said. “All the Republican staffs will tell you the same thing. … He could get information, give information, and be helpful to your objectives.

“Everybody told me he was unusually good at that.”

Dawson received the Job Corps Legislative Award, Philip V. McGance Award for exceptional public service and the National YMCA leadership award.

He is survived by his longtime friend and companion, Nancy Payne of Washington, D.C.

Dawson was buried in Iowa on Friday. His family asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the University of Wyoming, the Iowa Democratic Party or the American Diabetes Association.