Carol Felsenthal
On politics

‘Nothing to Lose’: Tammy Duckworth on Her Quest to Go to Congress

Representative Joe Walsh and Tammy Duckworth are scheduled to face off tonight in their first debate in the battle for the 8th District. The race, which pits Tea Party favorite Walsh against the Democrat and Iraq war vet Duckworth, is expected to be one of the most watched of the congressional races this year. I sat down with Duckworth last week for a wide-ranging interview…

Tammy DuckworthUpdate: Please see correction appended below.

Representative Joe Walsh and Tammy Duckworth are scheduled to face off tonight in their first debate in the battle for the 8th District. The race, which pits Tea Party favorite Walsh against the Democrat and Iraq war vet Duckworth, is expected to be one of the most watched of the congressional races this year.

I sat down with Duckworth last week for a wide-ranging interview in which she talked about the campaign, her family, her friendship with Bob Dole, and more. The former director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs—who lost both of her legs and tissue from the back of her right arm when the Black Hawk helicopter she was copiloting was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade—also told me about November 12, 2004, the day of her horrific injuries. After months of rehab and being fit with two titanium legs, the Purple Heart recipient can get around, and after surgeries, her arm is partially usable. When she met me at the Chicago offices last Friday, she was using a wheelchair and accompanied by her campaign manager, her spirit and contagious laughter intact. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. [Disclosure: My husband has contributed to Tammy Duckworth’s campaigns.]

CF: As a youngster and young woman, you lived in both Hawaii and Indonesia. Your life is oddly similar to President Obama’s.
TD:
I lived in Hawaii from age 16 through graduation from the University of Hawaii. I also lived in Indonesia as a child for seven years. I speak fluent Indonesian. I think the connection really that we share is an understanding of international cultures. Having grown up overseas as an American, I saw a lot of the privileges I had as opposed to the people around me who didn’t have those privileges. I also lived in Cambodia until two weeks before the Khmer Rouge took over because my dad was working for the UN. I saw some devastating things. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of that.

CF: Your mother is a native of Thailand and your father a descendant of Mayflower people.
TD:
Yes. I spoke Thai before I spoke English. [Duckworth was born in Bangkok.]

CF: Was your family politically liberal?
TD:
No, very conservative. My dad [whose military service spanned World War II to Vietnam] was from Virginia—lifetime member of the NRA, a marksman. My brother is also a lifetime member of the NRA [signed up by their father when he was a child]. My dad loved Ronald Reagan. My brother  lives in Nevada. He is a Harley Davidson motorcycle mechanic. He’s a Coast Guard vet; did eight years as a navigator on C-130s rescuing fishing boats and iceberg patrol. When he got out he had a really hard time finding a job. He did pest control for years trying to find a job and finally he took the GI bill to go back to school to become a mechanic. So he’s living the dream. My father is no longer alive. My mom lives with me in Hoffman Estates about six to eight months of the year to save costs. She lives part of the year in Hawaii.

CF: Your dad didn’t sign you up for the NRA?
TD:
No, but I grew up shooting guns. I’ve never been a member of the NRA.

CF: Your husband?
TD:
He’s from Maryland. I met him [Bryan Bowlsbey] in D.C.; we were both ROTC cadets. He’s on active duty [an Army Major] and he’s stationed at Fort Levenworth, Kansas.

CF: Will he campaign for you?
TD:
No, no; because he’s active duty, he can’t. When he gets a pass, say for Memorial Day weekend or the 4th of July, he gets to come home. If he’s there [say, at a parade] it’s more to support me physically with my wheelchair and stand next to me. He was there on election night standing with me as a family member.

CF: You talk about how much you love the Midwest. How did you end up here—specifically in graduate school at Northern Illinois University?
TD:
I was working at the Smithsonian Institution in D.C. while getting a master’s in international affairs at George Washington University. I wanted to take the foreign service exam, but then I got this wonderful job working for the Smithsonian curator for Asian history and started working on anthropological exhibits on Asia, and I decided I might think about doing my PhD. [The curator] said if you want to specialize in Southeast Asia, you need to go to NIU. And I said, “Go where?” I had applied to Georgetown, George Washington, University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins, and he said, `No, no, the best in the country is Berkeley, Cornell, and NIU.” So he gave me a week off of work and said, “You will go to DeKalb and check out NIU.” I went and fell in love. I did not know I was a Midwesterner until I got there. I just fell in love with the people. It was the summertime; I’d not seen the snow yet. I was writing my proposal [for my dissertation] on international political economy—I’m very interested in how political decision making affects economic development—when I was deployed.

CF: Later, after your war injuries, the university granted you an honorary degree?
TD:
They did. When I came back, I said, “One of the greatest disappointments in my life is that I ran out of time; I just didn’t finish,“ and they said, “Well you have a good excuse.” So I applied to re-certify. Now I need to write a new proposal and try to work on my dissertation again. The PhD would be in political science, but I am now going to switch my topic, and I’m very much interested in how disenfranchised groups are able to use social media. Amazonian tribes are getting law firms to provide pro bono services [to] fight logging companies. In Haiti a lot of local groups after the earthquake were able to use social media to access American prosthetics companies and get free artificial limbs mailed to them. I also started a PhD in health and human services [while she was Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs] at Capella University, which is on-line.

CF: What are you going to do differently in this campaign than you did six years ago? [Duckworth ran for Congress in the 6th District and lost to Peter Roskam.]
TD:
I’m a different candidate because I have a lot more experience. And I’ve learned that I can be effective by just being myself. In 2006 I spent a lot of time reacting to the dynamics that were going on at the national level, a lot of the fights that were going on. This time I’m just going to stick to the issues. I’m going to talk to the constituents, and I’m not going to jump on any carnivals or crazy trains. Like last night, talking to voters about Medicare in somebody’s living room in Schaumburg. She invited all of her neighbors. I sat and listened to all of the neighbors in a particular cul-de-sac. I’m going to do a lot more of that and not focus on a lot of a craziness. 

CF: Have you ever met Joe Walsh?
TD:
Not officially on the campaign trail, but if I had been home last night I would have met him. He door-knocked my house. I have a neighbor who’s a state trooper who watched him for a while and came over and [Walsh] said, “Hi, I’m Joe Walsh,” and handed [my neighbor] a flyer. My neighbor said, “You know this is Tammy Duckworth’s cul-de-sac right here, and you’re very nice but I’ll give you back your brochure. I’m going to just throw it away.” Joe Walsh said, “Will you take a picture with me?” And my neighbor said no.

CF: Joe Walsh told me he challenged you to a debate a month, but you agreed to four?
TD:
Yes, there are five months left of the campaign. I agreed to four debates. First one [this Friday] on [CLTV’s] Politics Tonight, Paul Lisnek and [Tribune reporter] Rick Pearson.

CF: Joe Walsh has said that you’re the handpicked candidate of David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. For starters, how important was Rahm in your decision?
TD:
Not much, actually it was Senator [Dick] Durbin. I was in the hospital. I was injured on November 12, 2004.  I woke up in the hospital on November 22 or 23. They had kept me in a medically induced coma because I was so badly wounded, for 11 days. Senator Durbin was the only member of Congress, House or Senate, that year, 2005, to invite wounded warriors to attend the State of the Union address. He called Walter Reed and said, “Do you have any Illinois wounded warriors there who are physically capable of attending the SOTU address?” It was my first trip out of the hospital after I’d been wounded. That’s when I met Senator Durbin. I got the cards of some of his constituent services staff members, and he gave me his personal contact information. I went back to the hospital, from January through June. I started getting into a different role in the hospital. I was the highest-ranking amputee there, and a lot of the other service members were having problems with different things, administrative things; the care was fantastic.  They were having trouble negotiating the system. These 24-year-olds started coming to my husband and me, saying, “Can you help me with this?” Patients took care of each other, and I started calling some of the Durbin staffers and started emailing him and said, “Look I’ve got another guy, hasn’t been paid in months, what’s going on?” The one that broke my heart: the wife, 19 or 20, came to my husband. Her husband had been unconscious for I don’t know how many months, and at some point, the Army had been paying him just combat pay, realized that they had erroneously been paying him combat pay and took it all back, and she was sitting there in Washington D.C. with no money. The senator called me and said, “Tammy, if you feel strongly as you have demonstrated for the last [several] months that veterans are not being taken care of properly, then you should think about running for Congress, and there’s an open seat in your hometown, Hoffman Estates—Henry Hyde’s seat.” It took my husband and me about four months to decide to do it.

CF: I’ve always heard that it was Bob Dole who inspired you to seek elective office.
TD:
This whole time when I was thinking about whether or not I was going to run, [Dole] was a patient at Walter Reed as well. He had fallen and had dislocated his shoulder; he was coming down to the therapy room and sitting next to all of us fellow vets and going through his therapy. He would talk to the young kids. I had no idea who he was. It was Lieutenant Dole, World War II vet who had wounded his arm in Italy and was going through the crappiness of having to recover, and he would just talk to the kids and bond with them, and they were like, “Man, if this 80-year-old guy can do this, therapy then I’m going to do the therapy.” I started chatting with with Bob Dole. A lot of the conversation was, “You know my friend Dan and I…. He served in World War II and he recovered, and we did this and we did that.” And after a while I realized he was talking about [Democratic Hawaii] Sen. Dan Inouye.   I felt just so inspired by Senator Dole’s life, and he was sitting on a hospital bed next to everyone else going through therapy, and so I think for me that was the clincher. I saw in him a path. At the time I couldn’t use my right arm at all. I had the one arm that I could work and I’m learning to walk and trying to figure out what to do with my life. I’ve been asked to consider running for Congress and I’m talking to a gentleman that I admired so deeply who had lived his entire life of service. I talked to him a lot about the bills that he passed. He co-authored the Americans with Disability Act with Teddy Kennedy. We developed a little bit of a friendship. I don’t talk politics when I’m in a military setting…. I just talked to him about serving. I see him from time to time. Every time I see, him he says, “If you told me you were running I would have made sure you run as a Republican, Tammy.”

CF: Did you feel bad when Dole endorsed Peter Roskam in 2006?
TD:
No.

CF: Do you think he’ll endorse Joe Walsh?
TD:
I don’t know. He’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. It doesn’t change how I feel about him. It doesn’t change my admiration for the amazing service that he continues to provide for his country. He is the embodiment of these guys, the Greatest Generation, and the fact that if he did nothing else than what he did in Italy and came home and went on with his life, he would have done more for his country than so many other people ever done. He lived an entire 60 more years of nothing but selfless sacrifice for his country.

CF: Back to Axelrod. How important is he this time? And Rahm last time?
TD:
He’s a little busy with the presidential campaign right now. He was not a factor in my decision, but he is certainly someone whose counsel I seek. If I have a question about something, I’m free to email him. Rahm Emanuel in 2006 didn’t call to push me to run, but once I decided to run he did push me to be the best candidate I could be. I got a lot of phone calls about, “What are you doing for field strategy? What’s your fundraising plan?” I got very frequent calls from Rahm about the structure of running, but my decision to run was really Senator Durbin. 

CF: In 2006 the Tea Party wasn’t a factor. Will it be a factor this time? 
TD:
The impact I’m expecting is the money that’s going to come from all sides. Joe, in his last filing, reported contributions from both the Koch brothers and Citizens United. I offered a pledge [to put conditions on accepting Super PAC money] three times, and he said no. Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown have a pledge in Massachusetts. My pledge is based on theirs. If Liz Warren and Scott Brown can do this [in a Senate race], c’mon, we can do this in a little congressional race.

CF: Is there somebody currently serving in Congress who you see as a role model?
TD:
Obviously on the Senate side, Durbin and Olympia Snow; unfortunately she’s leaving. I worked a lot with [Republican] Senator [Johnny] Isakson from Georgia on veterans’ issues. He’s a guy who has really done amazing things. [Republican] Senator [Lisa] Murkowski in Alaska has been fantastic as well. I’m now talking a lot to Mike Quigley; our districts neighbor each other. When we talk about businesses, I think a lot of time Democrats spend way too much time talking about punishing companies that send jobs overseas, we and don’t spend enough time talking about rewarding companies that keep jobs here. In my district we have a lot of small manufacturers who can’t manufacture here, but they do have jobs here and they need to be rewarded for those jobs they keep here and investments they continue to make in the district. There’s the understanding that if they have to do some manufacturing in China or India, that’s part of their being competitive, but what are we doing to encourage and reward them for keeping jobs here? 

CF: Why do you want to go to Congress anyway? It seems more acrimonious and rigid than ever.
TD:
I’ve got nothing to lose. I was sitting in my office last spring when we were about to shut down government because we couldn’t agree on a continuing resolution. I literally was in the VA at midnight, and I had this great office that looked over the White House; getting ready to send out communications to VA hospitals across the country and to veterans, “You’re not going to get these benefits and services,” and it just made me mad. It made me mad that I was in a place where [government was going to shut down] because of a manufactured political crisis. That’s when I started thinking about what was happening. Joe Walsh was my congressman then. All this was sort of percolating over time, and then when Melissa Bean said she wasn’t going to run, I just thought it is so bad in Washington we need to just do something different. I had successes at the VA. I had successes here in Illinois, where we did a lot of bipartisan things at a time when Rod [Blagojevich] and Mike Madigan were arguing about all sorts of stuff. I was working with all these folks in a bipartisan way to pass legislation, first in the nation programs for veterans. We passed the post 9/11 GI bill—the largest increase in veterans benefits in 30 years. That was done in a bipartisan manner. Maybe we can come together.

CF: Do you worry that if you do make it to Washington you’ll be disappointed and disillusioned?
TD:
This is a bonus time in my life… I never received a tourniquet; I never received first aid. They started evacuating everyone and then they came back to pull my body out mainly because they wanted my family to have something to bury, and it was only when I was transferred to a MedEvac helicopter at the insistence of my crew chief that he thought I may still be alive. I finally got lifted out 20 minutes after having my legs blown off; my arm was essentially detached, severed, and I happened to still be alive. So, for me, everything that I do now has to be in honor of that. So as bad as it’s going to be in Washington, I don’t owe those people anything. Joe Walsh can come knocking on my door all he wants, and the craziness can happen, but it’s never going to be as bad as getting blown up. And at the end of the day what I owe isn’t to Barack Obama, isn’t to [House Speaker John] Boehner, isn’t to anyone. It’s to the guys who I see once a year to thank them for saving my life. Every year on November 12, we get together, and every year I have to look at these men and say, “This is what I’ve done with my life this year; this is what I’ve done with what you’ve given me.”

CF: You lost to Roskam in November 2006. Did you get together with your crew that year?
TD:
Eight days after losing the election, I crawled out of the bathtub where I had been crying for three days and flew to St. Louis and met with my crew and had a reunion there. The last two years, we met in D.C., and I was able to treat them the first year to a tour of the White House. I was so proud.

CF: How many casualties on that crew?
TD:
Three casualties and one with burns. So I was the worst. My crew chief almost lost his life; he was sitting directly behind me, so the same explosion. He’s having a really difficult time right now. They were able to save his legs. The other pilot in command—the real hero of the mission who really landed the aircraft—he was scorched with a fireball, but the fireball was on me and it scorched him a little bit. 

CF: Were you right-handed?
TD:
I am right handed. My arm is stuck in this position, and I cannot turn it so I cannot eat with this arm. I had to learn to use chopsticks with my left hand, talk about traumatic. When you write you know how you turn; I can’t do that. I can control my left hand just enough to be able to write. I have always had very poor handwriting, but now I have a really good excuse.

 

Correction: After a complaint from Tammy Duckworth’s campaign manager, Kaitlin Fahey, I re-listened to the tape of our interview in two places and agree that I mis-heard the following:

About Bob Dole, the sentence should read:

They had no idea who he was.

About Duckworth’s crew chief the answer should read:

My crew chief almost lost his leg; he was sitting directly behind me, so the same explosion. He’s having a really difficult time right now. They were able to save his leg.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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