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updated: 3/11/2012 7:43 AM

Duckworth aims to connect military experience, childhood struggles to voters

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  • Tammy Duckworth

      Tammy Duckworth

  • Video: Raja for Congress video

  • Video: Duckworth campaign video

  • Video: Raja Krishnamoorthi

  • Video: Tammy Duckworth

 
By Kerry Lester
Politics and Projects Writer
klester@dailyherald.com

From their seats at Fulton's steakhouse, supporters at a lunchtime fundraiser for 8th District Democratic candidate Tammy Duckworth could see the Chicago River sparkling that late September afternoon.

Between bites of salad, the 70-odd guests heard former Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod tell of how Duckworth brings the presence of an American hero to the table. That presence alone, he said, would spur bipartisanship in the divided U.S. House. Duckworth is a double amputee veteran of the Iraq War.

"I think a lot about what it's going to mean when she walks down that aisle on those titanium legs, with that spine of steel, and takes her place at the podium in the well of the House -- she's going to speak from the profound place of someone who understands just how the decisions that are made in that body affect the lives of people," Axelrod said, glancing out at the crowd and over the water.

Though her opponent in the high-profile primary election is Hoffman Estates businessman and fellow Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi, Duckworth and supporters invoked McHenry Tea Partyer Joe Walsh's name over and over that day, casting him as a local example of a crop of Republicans who, after refusing to reach across the aisle on key issues, including the debt ceiling battle, needed to be removed from office.

Yet at that point in the primary election campaign, no one knew that Walsh would eventually switch congressional districts to avoid facing off against another freshman Republican congressman.

Now running in the 8th, Walsh will face the winner of the Krishnamoorthi/Duckworth race in November, in what will be one of the most closely watched elections in the nation.

Duckworth described Walsh's and other Republicans' politics as a reason she stepped back into the game six years after losing a bitter race to Republican Peter Roskam of Wheaton in the 6th Congressional District, a contest in which $15 million was spent, a local record for Congress.

Duckworth, 43, a former assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs in the Obama administration, says she was struck by the "ridiculousness" of infighting between Republicans and Democrats as a government shutdown due to failure to reach a deal became a real possibility last spring.

"I'm going to try and come back and do this," Duckworth says she decided. "We've got to find a way to roll up our sleeves and work together."

When Duckworth stepped down from her Obama administration position in June and formally announced her 8th District candidacy weeks later, Krishnamoorthi already had nearly two months of active campaigning and fundraising under his belt.

Illinois' former deputy treasurer who narrowly lost a primary bid for comptroller in 2010, Krishnamoorthi had already secured endorsements from local Democrats, including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Democratic chairs of DuPage and Kane counties, three state central committeemen and a majority of Cook County's Democratic committeemen. He raised more than $400,000 by the time Duckworth was entering the race.

Despite that, Duckworth never displayed concern or a hurried pace to make up for lost time, instead commissioning several polls that, according to her campaign, reaffirm that she had the name recognition in the district to win the primary and beyond. Her broad network of donors allowed her to quickly match Krishnamoorthi's war chest. As of Friday, she had raised $1.28 million, compared to Krishnamoorthi's $1.15 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

She won the endorsement of Democratic Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, of Springfield, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, along with other well-known Democrats and a number of unions in the manufacturing-heavy 8th District.

The district contains some of the most independent voting areas of Northwest Cook and DuPage County -- Addison, Hanover and Elk Grove townships, and parts of Wheeling Township. For Duckworth, it contains 55 percent of the former 6th Congressional District where she ran in 2006 -- territory that she overwhelmingly won, while losing more traditional Republican strongholds in DuPage County, such as Wheaton and Glen Ellyn.

While Duckworth and Krishnamoorthi have similar stances, from the repeal of Bush-era tax cuts to a commitment to investing in infrastructure and education, much of the difference in their candidacies lies in how they approach those issues.

Duckworth describes her own childhood struggles, her comeback from a life-altering injury, and her work to better the lives of veterans as reason for selection.

Krishnamoorthi, an executive at a Bolingbrook laboratory, cites his small-business experience and work managing funds at the Illinois treasurer's office as expertise to help the economy.

Born in Hawaii to a family where military service has been a tradition since the Revolutionary War, Duckworth received a bachelor's degree at the University of Hawaii and a master's from George Washington University.

A captain in the National Guard, Duckworth was deployed to Iraq in 2004. She lost her legs that November after a rocket-propelled grenade hit the Blackhawk helicopter she was piloting. She knew she had lost at least one leg, but she stayed conscious until the damaged aircraft landed.

When she awoke a week later, both her legs were gone and her right arm was severely injured. She recovered at the now-closed Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., learning to use her prostheses and rebuilding her arm strength.

Duckworth received a Purple Heart for her service. Another memento, nearly as valuable, sits in her living room -- her battalion helmet, signed by all unit members and dedicated to "The Duck."

Duckworth had been out of the hospital just days when she announced her bid in the 6th Congressional District.

"As a Democrat, it was an opportunity to change the perception that one party had a monopoly on patriotism," said Billy Weinberg, who served as communications director for her first campaign. "This is why we get into this business. To work with candidates like this."

Looking back on the hard-fought race, which Duckworth ultimately lost by four percentage points to Roskam, Weinberg praised Duckworth's ability to use her personal struggles to connect with voters.

Duckworth, campaigning in the 8th District primary, has made it a point not to use words like "fight" and "war" in her speeches and news releases -- suggesting that many of the politicians using such imagery have never been to battle themselves.

Following her 2006 loss to Roskam, Duckworth became director of Illinois' Department of Veterans Affairs, where she touts work to implement programs to address post-traumatic stress, improve traumatic brain injury screening and reduce veterans homelessness.

In 2009, she was tapped by President Obama to be assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs, overseeing efforts to end veterans' homelessness on the national level.

She says she has no plans to go to Washington with a megaphone and says, if elected, she would work to be a bipartisan force.

Krishnamoorthi criticizes Duckworth as beholden to "Washington party elders," stressing his own independence and grass-roots support.

Duckworth says she'll be an independent voice with the connections to get the job done.

"Unlike a lot of people, this for me is bonus time," she said. "I should have died in Iraq. I was triaged as dead. ... I don't have to be doing this. I could be at home -- I get a great disability pension, but I'm doing this because I have more to do with my life."

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