The 8th District congressional race in the newly configured Northwest suburbs between Republican Joe Walsh and Democrat Tammy Duckworth threatens to be one of the ugliest and hottest in the country—one that will receive loads of national attention and money. The Democrats figure they have the perfect candidate in Iraq war hero Duckworth to send Tea Party favorite freshman Walsh packing.
Nobody would ever call Walsh a temperate personality; he has made his reputation and become a favorite of cable TV shout shows by saying what’s on his mind—for example, he told President Obama to “quit lying." But he went over the line in an interview with Politico’s David Catanese, held in an Elgin coffee shop, published today.
The subject turns to Duckworth, the Black Hawk pilot who lost her legs and part of the use of right arm after her helicopter was hit in 2004 by a rocket-propelled grenade. She recovered to run unsuccessfully for Congress, and then to serve as Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, as well as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Catanese writes:
“I have so much respect for what she did in the fact that she sacrificed her body for this country,” said Walsh, simultaneously lowering his voice as he leaned forward before pausing for dramatic effect. “Ehhh. Now let’s move on.”
“What else has she done? Female, wounded veteran … ehhh,” he continued. “She is nothing more than a handpicked Washington bureaucrat. David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel just picked her up and dropped her into this district.”
The last line, especially, with its image of the legless Duckworth being dropped from the air “into [the] district” struck me as beyond tasteless. As of post time, a few commenters blasted Walsh on charges by his ex-wife that he owes her $117,437 in child support payments, but none had remarked on his insensitive statements about Duckworth. I called Duckworth’s campaign manager for a response from the candidate, as well as Walsh’s press secretary to ask the congressman for further clarification of his remarks. Neither has responded by post time.
When I interviewed Walsh in September 2011(read parts 1 and 2), he was polite, patient, and thoughtful in his answers. When I asked if he regrets accusing the president of lying, he responded, “Absolutely…. That’s where you step over the line.” When I asked the him if he could see himself supporting Mitt Romney as the GOP nominee, he responded, “Oh, gosh, yes. If Mitt Romney’s my nominee, I’m gonna work my tail off for him.”
So he has it in him to be more than a YouTube sensation. The viewers of his most over-the-top performances, I’d wager, are at least as inclined to laugh at him as to admire him. Walsh’s “brash, irreverent style,” as Politico's Catanese puts it, is what has brought the congressman so much attention, but this election year, it might behoove the Republican to tone down the venom; to filter every putdown that pops into his brain; to remember that in the district, now leaning Democratic, he’s going to have to attract suburban moms and independents.
UPDATE: 4:45 p.m.
Joe Walsh called me a couple of hours after my blog was posted. Asked if he regretted saying that Axelrod and Emanuel “just picked [Tammy Duckworth] up and dropped her into this district,” Walsh admitted he would phrase it differently if he had a do-over. “I often catch myself when I’m talking. I meant something other than how it came out.”
“Because I never served,” Walsh explained, “I have an unbelievable amount of awe and respect for everybody who wore the uniform.” But he reiterated that Duckworth was "chosen by Axelrod, Emanuel [and he added Dick Durbin], all Washington insiders…. This is a district that was drawn by Democrats in D.C. to try to elect Tammy Duckworth.”
Walsh said that he called Duckworth on election night to congratulate her—he spoke to an aide—and to ask her to join him in monthly debates, starting in April and ending in November. He said that her “campaign” responded that she’d be open “to a few debates down the road.”
Walsh’s tea party supporters might be surprised to hear that he voted for Mitt Romney in the Illinois primary. He hasn’t endorsed Romney—he says it’s “not his place as congressman to do so”—but plans to work tirelessly for Romney or for whomever else the Republicans nominate.
Photography: Chicago Tribune