Tammy Duckworth once lived on food stamps when her father lost his job, and says she believes in the American dream. She says without public assistance, her family might have been stuck. That's why, Duckworth says, she’s running for Congress--to advocate for the people.
Duckworth is a war veteran, who lost both her legs in combat as a helicopter pilot. But her resulting disabilities didn’t impede her public service work; she became an advocate for the disabled and worked as the Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, and ultimately as the Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the VA.
But she resigned from her position in June to run for the Democratic nomination in the 8th District. She hopes to beat fellow Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi and face Tea Partier Joe Walsh in the general elections. But when she ran for Congress six years ago in the Republican-leaning 6th District, she narrowly lost to Peter Roskam by nearly 5,000 votes.
Chicago Tonight spoke with Tammy Duckworth to learn what’s different this time. And don’t forget to watch Duckworth alongside Krishnamoorthi for a special candidate forum on March 7, 2012, on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Excerpts:
1) What are the major issues that you see in your district?
It’s the economy, and it’s jobs. That’s clearly the central concern of all the constituencies I speak with, whether it’s individual voters or business owners. It’s about what we can do to get the economy moving again and what we can do to get employers to hire new workers and get workers to find jobs.
2) At this point, it appears Raja Krishnamoorthi has raised more money than you.
Well, he has, but he started a whole quarter before I did. I raised more money in two quarters than he did in three quarters. A lot of his money is general election money that he can’t spend in the primary. The big difference between us is that most of his donors are big donors, whereas most of my donors give me $100 or less. I have a bigger pool of lower dollar donors and he has a pool of higher dollar donors.
3) And recent polls indicate you’re in the lead in a variety of facets, including name recognition?
My name recognition is over 80 percent. That’s pretty remarkable because I haven’t been on the ballot since 2006, whereas Raja spent $1 million and was on the ballot in 2010, and his name recognition is still slow. For me, the name recognition is a fact that 59 percent of the primary voters would rather vote for me. And they say I have a better shot.
4) Who has endorsed you?
I specifically have not asked for endorsement from state and local legislators because this is a federal race. I’ve specifically said, look, I’m not looking for an endorsement. You don’t need to mess around in a federal race. I know that Raja cares deeply about getting endorsements, even from people who are retired and don’t live in the state. But that’s not a policy we’re following. I do know he was very strategic in going to a lot of local leaders when he knew I was getting into the race. He was able to get a lot of endorsements before people realized I was going to be declared. I’ve talked to every leader in the districts and downstate, and 100 percent of the ones listed on Raja’s page say they look forward to my leadership. Melissa Bean is a good example. I wasn’t allowed to call her because of Hatch Act. [Hatch Act is a federal law that prevents federal civil servants from campaigning. At the time, Duckworth was employed by the Department of Veteran Affairs.] So when I was thinking about whether or not I was declaring to run, I was only allowed to tell certain people. But the most important endorsement is that of the voters.
5) If you win the primary and are the Democrat against Joe Walsh, what’s your strategy?
I think it’s talking about getting Washington back to work again. I think Walsh’s strategy has been to yell in a bullhorn a lot. I don’t think people yelling at bullhorns are going to get anything done. I’m going to offer practical solutions to people in the district. I’m going to get stuff done, just like I did with veteran’s issues and passing caregiver’s legislation. This is what I can do for you, the constituency. I will roll up my sleeves and work with this country as much as I can to get it moving again.
6) Can you beat Joe Walsh in the general election?
Well, the polls show that he loses to any generic Democrat by 35-49. This district has also changed significantly. About 55 percent of the district used to be in the old 6th District and it’s all the parts I won. I won Elk Grove Village, Addison, Bloomingdale and Streamwood, which are all in the district now. These are folks who already voted for me.
7) How do you feel about the Tea Party extremist?
I really don’t have much of an opinion, although I wish he would remember the servant in public service. I spent my entire adult life in service to my nation. And I wonder if the folks who get into office forget that you are a servant of the public. It’s not about getting on TV or fighting a war for the Tea Party, it’s about serving the people that elected you and looking out for their interests.
8) More than 20,000 of your neighbors have lost their lobs since the recession began; how do you plan on remedying that?
I have a jobs plan I put out. I feel so strongly about this. Economy and jobs are the most important issues in my district. I put it out very early, even before the President put his out. I have short term and long term goals. Short term is investment in infrastructure and development especially with I-55, I-290 and I-355 in the district. Many of the major rail lines that leave from Chicago go out across the county. We definitely need our infrastructure to be refurbished. But then we also some long term incentive programs, like a tax credit for hiring people who have been unemployed more than six months. This district doesn’t have large manufacturing corporations, but we have businesses that are parts manufacturers for Ford Motor Company, for example. They need investments to development additional product lines. We have one manufacturer that makes parts for helicopters. They just started making windmill parts because they got stimulus money—and they went from 34 employees to 65. Those are the type of investment programs to put in place, as well as worker retraining.
9) Are you better prepared than Raja?
I definitely think I have a far deeper, and more depth and breadth of experience. I’ve worked at state, county, municipality and federal level. I’ve been able to implement programs that are nationwide, as well as very targeted local programs. My first day in Washington, frankly, I’m not going to be your typical freshman in Congress. Raja will be; he’ll be 1 of 500. But I will be able to reach out and talk to [Secretary of Transportation] Ray LaHood about O’Hare improvements and western access because I’ve worked with him at the federal level. I think there’s something to be said about having that experience, whether it’s at the national level or downstate.
10) Six years ago, you took a run in politics; what motivated you?
I was sort of called out on it by Sen. Dick Durbin and then Sen. Barack Obama. Sen. Obama was on the veteran’s committee and called me to testify several times. Durbin was working with constituents, and he called me, and Barack and I had been talking, and they said we think you should run for Congress, you should put your money where your mouth is. Be the agent of change. I would never have thought of getting into politics. It was not my life’s mission, but I came at it through becoming an advocate. Once I became an advocate for veterans, I began to become an advocate for healthcare. When I lost, I didn’t know I would run again. I was very happy as a public servant, but things are so dysfunctional now and I think it’s time for some real practical solutions.
11) What will be different now than when you ran against Peter Roskam in 2006?
What’s different is my experience as a candidate. I have a greater breadth and depth of experience than I did then. I had gone from working nonprofit then to Iraq, then a national voice to getting out of Iraq, and a national voice for better care of veterans. Since then, I put a lot of my ideas to work and spent three years out in Springfield. Illinois was 49 out of 50 for veteran’s benefits. After I left, we were No. 1. And it’s because we started a lot of programs, like the $600 tax credit for employers who hire veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, or Desert Storm.
12) You said on MSNBC with Martin Bashir that your district is seeing a lot of buyer’s remorse now. Explain?
I think a lot of people who voted for Joe Walsh didn’t know a lot about his background; they thought they were going to get someone who was a true fiscal conservative to balance budget and live in means. They didn’t think they would get someone who would leave town when the President was giving an address on jobs, or seemingly auditioning to be on talk radio instead of working for them.
13) How do you think you can translate military experience into Congress?
The military gave me leadership skills. It taught me to stand up and express myself, and do a real good qualitative analysis of the situation. It taught me, then, to defend what I think is the best solution, and then lead my men into that fight, whatever it is. I can ask those tough questions in Washington, D.C. that people can’t ask. We’re already hearing drum beats about going to war in Iran. And I’m going to stand up and be a unique voice.
14) What are three words you would use to describe yourself?
Experienced, practical, leader.
This interview has been condensed and edited.