Note: Part Two of this blog’s 2016 election endorsements.
For United States Senate—Tammy Duckworth
Increasingly deep blue Illinois has been represented in the United States Senate for six years by a North Shore Republican, Mark Kirk. He faces a challenge from Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth. It has become the hottest and most expensive race this year as Democrats drive to take back the Senate and give the likely next President, Hillary Clinton, much needed breathing room in critical future Supreme Court nominations and as a bulwark against the House of Representatives which will probably remain in troglodyte Republican hands.
Both candidates are disabled and frequently, although not exclusively, in wheel chairs and have been lauded for their courageous recoveries and are thus sympathetic figures. Kirk suffered a devastating stroke in 2012 which left him temporarily paralyzed and affected his speech. He was unable to attend Senate sessions or committee hearings for nearly a year. He was reported to keep up with pending legislation and perform constituent services from rehabilitation and at home, although most of the work was done by his staff. After emergency brain surgery and intensive physical and speech therapy, he returned to the Senate in 2013 and announced his intention to run for reelection a year later.
Today he speaks clearly, walks with a leg brace, and has limited use of one arm. He still tires easily and frequently uses a wheel chair, as he did in his joint appearance with Duckworth recently at the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board interview.
|Captain Duckworth and her Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq.|
Duckworth famously suffered critical injuries when the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was shot down in Iraq in 2004. She lost her right leg near the hip, her left leg below the knee, and her right arm was almost completely destroyed but ultimately saved. Captain Duckworth was the first female double amputee of the war. While recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, she was promoted to Major and received her first public attention in a 60 Minutes segment on her courageous recover and rehabilitation. Senator Bob Dole, the former Republican Presidential candidate and himself a disabled veteran was so impressed with her that he dedicated his autobiography, One Soldier’s Story, to her.
Fitted with prosthetic limbs Duckworth walks with the aid of a crutch, but like Kirk, she frequently uses a wheelchair and was in one for the Tribune appearance.
Duckworth got a medical waiver, and continued to serve in the Illinois National Guard in an administrative capacity. She retired as a Lt. Colonel in 2014.
|Senator Mark Kirk, named the GOP incumbent most likely to lose his seat.|
But she is not the only veteran in the race. Kirk served as a Naval Reserve intelligence officer. He was called to active duty during the NATO air campaign during the 1999 Kosovo War in the former Yugoslavia. His unit, based in Italy, coordinated American bombing missions and received the Vice Admiral Rufus L. Taylor Award by the National Military Intelligence Association. Later, he served three brief tours during the Iraq War, and flew as an observer in one reconnaissance flight over the war zone.
Lt. Commander Kirk made much of his Navy experience in his first run for Congress in 2000 and later leveraged it to a seat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. But Kirk repeatedly either exaggerated or lied about his service—and was repeatedly caught and forced to retract and apologize. He turned the unit award into a personal “Intelligence Officer of the Year” award and made it look like an official Navy commendation. He made up a story of coming under enemy fire on his sole Iraq flight. During his active tours, Kirk was also disciplined twice for conducting political activity on duty. The Senator officially retired from the Navy Reserve as a Commander in 2013 following his stroke.
|Kirk has often traded on his status a a Navy Reserve Intelligence officer, but his exaggerated claims for his service have backfired more than once. Here he is at his retirement ceremony.|
Given the disparity of their actual military service, it is curious that Kirk decided to build his entire re-election campaign around attacking Duckworth for her service to veterans. After losing her first bid for election to Congress in 2006, she was appointed Director of the Illinois Department of Veteran’s Affairs by Governor Rod Blagojevich. It was one of his prestige appointments, unsullied by crass politics that governed so many of his decisions. She was a high profile veteran’s advocate and initiated a program for those with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome that became a model for the nation.
She escaped identification with the scandals that brought down the governor. But during and after her tenure two whistleblower lawsuits were filed by former employees of a southern Illinois veteran’s home alleging that Duckworth had ignored complaints of patient abuse retaliated for the complaints. The suits were twice thrown out of court and described by one judge disgruntled staff bickering. The suit was refilled a third time and this year the Republican administration reached a small $26,000 settlement without an admission of guilt—the typical go away payment on a nuisance suit that has become too expensive to defend.
Despite this the Kirk campaign made the charges, and other unrelated allegations from Duckworth’s service as Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs from 2009-11 the center piece of attack ads. The ads continue to run, despite the claims made in them being shown to be exaggerated, sensationalized, or fabricated by independent fact checkers.
Duckworth answered the ad with one of her own with testimonials from veterans and an assertion that Kirk had lied about her. The two ads frequently run virtually together. Kirk has gotten the worst of it. Veterans have rallied to Duckworth’s defense and he has looked like a bully.
The desperate move of attacking Duckworth on her strong point was a result of the pickle Kirk had gotten himself into.
Kirk rose to prominence by taking back a Democratic held Congressional seat on the North Shore, home to leafy, old money suburbs, racially diverse Evanston home of Northwestern University, and the mix of nouveau riche villages and grubby working class town in Lake County. It was solidly liberal on social issues. To be elected a Republican had to be independent of the increasingly conservative party mainstream. Kirk was, obligingly, pro-choice, environmentally friendly, and occasionally bucked the party on other issues. He was the kind of so-called moderate Republican who makes the Chicago media’s collective knees buckle.
Kirks star shone brightly enough in his fourth term in the House to win the special election to fill Barack Obama’s seat. A few months later he overcame some noisy rightwing primary challengers and edged out Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias who was dragged down by the unpopularity of Gov. Blagojevich and a brewing scandal from the collapse of his family’s Bank.
|Kirk's ex-wife Kimberly Vertolli damaged his reputation with the revelation he had paid his mistrees $26,000 out of campaign funds.|
Months after the 2010 election, Kirk faced a personal scandal when his wife sued him for divorce and accused him of making payments to his mistress from campaign funds. He barely escaped serious trouble on that charge when the Election Commission ruled that the payments did not have to be reported because the woman was a paid sub-contractor on the campaign. He may have escaped the legal consequences, but his previously squeaky clean image was shattered.
Before the stroke his term was marked with controversy, particularly about the inflated claims he made about his Naval service. And, although he voted with his party more than 85% of the time, his straying from the reservation on gun legislation and choice enraged the Tea Party right which vowed to unseat him in the next primary. The sympathy generated by Kirk’s stroke and recovery plus the strong backing of the national party who saw him as the only hope of keeping the seat derailed most of those plans.
But upon returning to work and the public spotlight, Kirk stumbled with a series of head scratching gaffes. He called bachelor Senator Lindsey Graham, then running for the Republican Presidential nomination, “The bro with no ho.” He also quipped that “people drive faster through Black neighborhoods” and got caught on more exaggerations and lies like “someone got popped,” while he was on a ride along with Chicago Police. There were mutterings that perhaps the stroke had affected his mind or judgment.
Then, just when it was too late to mount an effective primary challenge, Kirk made right wing heads explode first by agreeing to meet with Obama’s stalled Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, a graduate Niles West High School—my old alma mater—in his former Congressional District and then—after some bobbing and weaving—refusing to endorse or support Donald Trump. Letters to the Editor columns and social media erupted with denunciations and vows never to vote for the traitor in the General Election.
Will they hold to that threat, even if it means loss of control of the Senate? Probably most will swallow hard and vote for Kirk. But if just 10% leave the line blank on their ballots or cast a protest vote for Libertarian Party nominee Kenton McMille, Kirk’s fading chances for re-election virtually evaporate.
Duckworth has had her own sometime rocky climb to the nomination of her party.
As part of a nationwide push, in 2006 Duckworth was recruited by the Democratic National Committee to run for the open seat left vacant by the retirement of arch-abortion foe Henry Hyde in the suburban 6th Congressional District. Once an un-assailable Republican stronghold, demographic changes and the dissatisfaction of many pro-choice GOP women it became a potential swing district.
But Duckworth had to face Christine Cegelis, a favorite of progressive grass roots activists making her second run for the office. Many felt Cegelis had earned the right to be the party’s nominee. Duckworth’s campaign was heavily financed from outside the district and managed by top party pros. Duckworth rolled over Cegelis in the primary but despite out spending her General Election opponent, state Senator Peter Rostum, lost in November by more than 4,000 votes. Many party liberals remained bitter and subsequently opposed her.
Six years later, after Duckworth’s service in the state and Federal Veterans positions, she was once again tapped by the national party. This time she was asked to run in the 8th Congressional District which extends from the western suburbs to Elgin with an odd narrow hook north along IL. Rt. 53 and then back east to near Wheeling. He opponents charged that the district was drawn expressly to include Duckworth’s home. The one term incumbent was Tea Party zealot and radio raver Joe Walsh. After overcoming progressive favorite Illinois Deputy Treasurer Raja Krishnamoorthi in the primary she swamped Walsh picking up endorsements of normally Republican papers like the Chicago Tribune and Daily Herald in the process.
Two years later she romped to re-election against Marine Corps. Col. Larry Kaifesh.
|A rising star in the Democratic Party, Duckworth address Democratic National Conventions in 2008,2012, and this summer in Philadelphia.|
Duckworth has finally mended fences with most progressive activists. Her blistering grilling while serving on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee of Strong Castle CEO Braulio Castillo for his fraudulent use of a disabled veteran set-aside to gain a $500 million contract became a viral sensation on social media.
As a Senate candidate Duckworth has become an outspoken advocate of positions dear to the heart of progressives and supporters of Bernie Sanders including opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, advocacy for a free college tuition program, sensible gun legislation, immigration reform including a clear path to citizenship, and expanded acceptance of refugees. She remains a vigorous supporter of women’s rights and choice and is the leading voice of the disabled in Congress.
Duckworth is clearly doing something right. A poll released earlier this week by the respected Paul Simon Institute at Southern Illinois University showed her widening her lead over Kirk and is now ahead 48 % to 34 %. The Huffington Post average of major polls now shows her leading by a margin of 45.6 % to 36.6%.
Way to go, sister!
By the way, I should note that the Green Party candidate is a McHenry County local. Scott Summers of Harvard is a former McHenry County College Trustee who has run for local and county offices as both a Green and a Democrat. Since Duckworth has gained the support of both the Sanders and Clinton forces in the Democratic Party, Summers will get even less of a bump than Jill Stein is getting at the top of the ticket. Expect him to finish a poor 4th in the race in the very low single digits behind the Libertarian who will be fattened by anti-Trump Republicans.