Shared military experience 'a starting place' for Duckworth in Congress
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Last of a two-part series
WASHINGTON — Waiting in line to fill out new-member paperwork at the U.S. Capitol complex, Tammy Duckworth and Paul Cook had a less-than-typical exchange.
"What happened to you?" Cook, a California Republican congressman, asked Hoffman Estates Democrat Tammy Duckworth after noticing his fellow freshman's camouflage-colored prosthetic legs.
"RPG," she answered, and after noticing Cook's Purple Heart pin, she asked, "You?"
"Trip wire, Vietnam," he shrugged.
While other new members of Congress might be struggling to get noticed in their first months in office, Duckworth's story — her injury from a rocket-propelled grenade that hit the helicopter she was piloting over Iraq and her yearlong recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington — has given her perhaps the highest profile of any freshman member. Just five months into her tenure, Duckworth's injury and her status as a decorated veteran give her a forum to push her agenda and build connections to Republicans, while at least initially insulating her from being a targeted candidate in 2014, unlike other freshman suburban Democrats.
It's not that Duckworth's road to Congress has been easy.
In 2006, less than two years after losing her legs, Duckworth was defeated in a bitter, costly race by Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton. She turned to the executive branch, becoming director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, then an assistant secretary of veterans' affairs under President Barack Obama.
Last November, she won by an eight-point margin in her second bid for Congress, opposing incumbent Tea Party firebrand Joe Walsh of McHenry in the 8th Congressional District, which stretches from Addison to Elgin and includes parts of Kane, Cook and DuPage counties.
Early in her second bid for office, top Democratic strategists billed her as a unifying voice for the often-divided U.S. House.
"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," former Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod told attendees at a summer 2011 fundraiser.
Duckworth seems comfortable with that mantle. She describes herself as acutely aware that she is living on "borrowed time" granted to her by the military buddies who saved her life.
In that, Duckworth echoes in some ways a fellow member of the Illinois delegation, Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois. Back at the Capitol since January after suffering a stroke a year earlier, Kirk, in an interview with the Daily Herald, said his experience led him to view some things differently even when he differed from the Republican party line.
Likewise, Duckworth has pledged to buck her party to support her district.
"I have only one boss, and it's the constituents. It's not the administration, the leadership of my party, the speaker of the House," Duckworth said. "My experience has been that so far, when I've stood up and wanted to do something my party, my leadership hadn't encouraged, I still did it."
In February, as federal sequestration cuts — forced after Congress failed to reach a plan to deal with the country's deficit — were looming, Duckworth pledged to take an 8.4 percent pay cut until a solution was reached.
She said Democratic House leaders didn't back the decision.
"I spoke with leadership. They said, 'Well, we generally don't think that's a good idea. People work hard and it becomes a gimmick,'" Duckworth said. "I said, it's important to people in my district. And then they said, 'Well, you go ahead and do it.'"
Duckworth also cast a vote to cut the budgets of House administrative staffers, who had taken some significant cuts already, and voted for legislation that would prevent lawmakers from being paid unless a budget was passed.
She says she wants to work with Roskam, her former rival and now House chief deputy whip, on Medicare fraud legislation, among other issues facing their suburban districts, which are directly next to one another.
Roskam has not commented on that proposal, or specifically about working with Duckworth, releasing to the Daily Herald a general statement instead saying, "I'm ready to work with any member — Republican or Democrat — who wants to find common-sense solutions to the big problems facing our country."
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Springfield who campaigned for Duckworth in both 2006 and 2012, noted that Duckworth has called him "with a lot of pride" about amendments she's offered and work she's done with Republican members, including Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
But Duckworth has also cast 94 percent of total votes with her party, according to The Washington Post's Congressional Votes Project.
While bucking leadership at times runs contrary to the training members of the military receive, Duckworth says she learned to advocate for those around her as the highest ranking officer recovering at Walter Reed in 2004. That sense of purposefulness has, to some extent, been reinforced by her status in the party — a former Obama administration member who served as a keynote speaker at the last two Democratic conventions — and the fact that her 8th Congressional District is considered to be one of the "safer" seats for Democrats in 2014.
Unlike Naperville Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Foster and Deerfield Democratic U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, Duckworth so far hasn't appeared on email blasts from the National Republican Congressional Committee seeking to regain seats in the suburbs in 2014.
"It's a little tougher seat," NRCC Chairman and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon said. Against Duckworth, "what I need there is a very strong woman to run. Or a minority candidate to run. Someone who brings a lot of gravitas to the race. And who maybe brings some financial support to the race, because it would be very expensive, but that's got to be a very special candidate. Because it's a very special circumstance. Tammy Duckworth served her country with great distinction and sacrifice. And it's important."
Her predecessor, Walsh, made town halls — where the former government teacher typically paced before a seated audience and answered questions — a hallmark of his tenure. By contrast, Duckworth has set about getting to know the needs of her district through small focus groups.
It is a more gentle style, in which she encourages each member at the table to talk, often breaking the ice with self-deprecating humor and taking notes all the while.
"This is just how I've always done things. I think it goes back to my military background," Duckworth said, after a recent round-table at the Kenneth Young Center in Wheeling.
"As a staff officer, at the end of every meeting, you go away and you have your do-outs," she said. "I can stand up in front of a crowd and give a good speech. I can do that. That doesn't help the district. I take notes, I learn something every single time."
On a typical day in Washington, Duckworth holds a string of meetings after votes, on this day including representatives from the Illinois League of Financial Institutions, Illinois Bankers Association and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, before meeting with her staff about the letters pouring in from the district.
Holly Petraeus, wife of retired four-star general David Petraeus, is an advocate for military personnel at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
She and Duckworth chat about shared connections as well as ways to work with service members so they know when they're getting a good deal on major purchases.
Known for a hands-on approach with even the smallest details, Duckworth later, with her staff, scrutinizes word for word letters of congratulation being sent out to members of her district who are joining the foreign service. She pumps her fist in the air when reading a letter from a small business.
"I learned, at a Bartlett Veterans Memorial Gala, that Bartlett is the pasta capital of the Midwest," she says, describing the recent addition of leading European pasta manufacturer Rana Meal Solutions to the village.
Bob Mattson, commander at Streamwood American Legion Post 5151, said he believes Duckworth's position as both a veteran and a member of Congress is "going to be a real plus" for local veterans.
Still, he said, the post's interaction with Duckworth has been "a little bit limited so far. I've talked to her a few times."
The group plans a summer event with the hope Duckworth and Roskam will be on hand to talk to local veterans about transitioning to civilian life and answer questions about health services and educational opportunities available.
"Her schedule is so that we have to set the event around her availability," Mattson said.
Duckworth is a regular on a number of national television programs, but spokesman Anton Becker said she frequently declines media interviews to be more district-focused.
After April floods in suburban Chicago that left much of her district underwater, Duckworth canceled an appearance on "Meet the Press" to come home to survey the damage.
Duckworth says while her military experience links her to other veterans in Congress, her visible injury "serves more as an icebreaker than anything."
At a time when the number of veterans in Congress is on a steady decline, she said, "the shared experience of serving in the military, serving in Congress ... it's a starting place."
One where Democrat and Republican, Duckworth and Cook, are now developing a cautious friendship.
In the House, Cook notes, "You've got to work together, and one area where we can work together is on veterans' issues."
"Some people look at you like you can't talk to a Democrat," he said. "I'm like, 'Give me a break.' She's a warrior and has just got so much courage. I admire her so much."
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