Tammy Duckworth: The First Asian-American Woman to Serve Illinois in Congress

Jan 1, 2013

Tammy Duckworth
Credit defense.gov
The election in Illinois’ 8th Congressional District was defined by personalities, by national ideological and demographic trends and by political realities specific to Illinois. In one corner, Hoffman Estates Democrat Tammy Duckworth, born in Thailand, became another data point in a sweeping national victory for Democrats and the progressive left. In the other, Republican Joe Walsh, the incumbent and an outspoken member of the Tea Party wave that took the House in 2010, became another casualty in a Congress that will be less male and Caucasian than any before.

With Duckworth now poised to take Walsh’s seat in Congress, she is looking forward to what comes next after one of the hardest-fought and conspicuously expensive campaigns in the state. Both candidates’ sensational stories and the money surrounding their contest made their campaigns a highlight of nationwide election coverage and a view of what forces drove the 2012 wave for Democrats and progressive issues.

Duckworth, 44, was born in Bangkok, with military credentials stretching back to before she even lived in North America. The daughter of a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, she and her family traveled throughout Southeast Asia for her father’s work with the United Nations. She joined the U.S. Army Reserve in 1992 and opted to become a helicopter pilot, she says, because it was one of the few combat roles open to women.

“For me, the perspective was one of how varied the world is but an optimism of America’s place in it,” Duckworth says. “I think that’s always going to be a place where I come from now, as an adult. I know America’s strength and her capabilities, and I’m going to work hard to maintain those.”

Enemy combatants shot down a helicopter Duckworth piloted over Iraq in 2004. She managed to get it to the ground but lost both her legs and injured one of her arms in the attempt.

Since then, Duckworth made an unsuccessful 2006 run for the then-6th Congressional District, losing to Peter Roskam. She served as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs under Gov. Rod Blagojevich from 2006 to 2009 and then as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs from 2009 to 2011.

“In 2006, with the wars going on, the narrative (during the 2006 campaign) was very much concentrated on what was happening in Iraq and foreign policy, and this time, I was able to connect more with the people in my district about my history,” Duckworth says.

Jaime Dominguez, a professor of political science at Northwestern University who focuses on Latino issues and Chicago politics, says Duckworth was also favored by a wave of sentiment that broke nationally against Republicans, along with the 2010 redistricting process that drew a congressional district with favorable demographics for a Democrat, regardless of the candidate’s race or gender.

Every 10 years, the state legislature redraws the boundaries of legislative districts, a highly partisan process during which the majority party — in this case Democrats — holds the high hand. Dominguez says he hesitates to use the word “gerrymandering” in the case of the 8th District.

“In redrawing that district, the party made sure to incorporate large chunks of the Hispanic population that had grown substantially in that part of the district,” Dominguez says. “Was there bad intent [on the part of Democrats]? I don’t think so. It was reflective of us as a society.”

Duckworth also benefited from the perception among the electorate of Democrats being more attuned to women’s issues, Dominguez says. 

“What helped the Democrats was the national context surrounding the election,” he says. “We saw the narrative coming from the Republican Party at the national level that they were not friendly to women on equal pay, reproductive rights. Her campaign piggybacked off of that, and it definitely gave her leverage.”

Duckworth drew from a mighty war chest to win and spent nearly all of the $4.5 million she raised. Her $4.2 million campaign outspent Walsh’s $1.2 million effort, though money spent by super PACs, the outside organizations that can spend indirectly on a candidate’s behalf, were major factors in the race. Tracking their spending — and who provided them the money to begin with — is more difficult to pin down. The airwaves in the Chicago suburbs were choked with attack ads between the two campaigns and the organizations supporting them.

Duckworth says she wants to push for the DISCLOSE Act, which would mandate more disclosure on the part of super PACs, among other things. It was defeated in the Senate by the threat of a Republican filibuster during the previous session.

“I expect that the forces like the Koch brothers and Citizens United, Freedomworks — I think that will only grow,” Duckworth says. “There was no disclosure of where they got their money from. I think passing the DISCLOSE Act will be important, and it’s possible in the near term.”

As she looks forward to the next two years, she says the economy and jobs will be among her top priorities.

“The first thing we’re going to have to do is the fiscal cliff,” Duckworth says. “It would be great to think the lame duck session would get that handled, and I’m optimistic, but I think we’re going to deal with it come January.”

Nearer to her own district, Duckworth says transportation issues are going to be key, and she hopes she can get on the House Transportation Committee. Improvements to the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway (which, as Duckworth points out, still goes to neither of its namesakes) are top among those concerns, she says.

And she’ll still be an advocate for veterans’ issues.

“I’m always going to be interested in veterans’ issues,” Duckworth says. “As I was coming home from my training session (for new members of Congress), I was approached at the airport by veterans. You can count on me to continue my work, from veteran employment, to homelessness, to health care.”

Soon after the election, Duckworth took the stage alongside House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a host of other triumphant female representatives. Duckworth says the increased diversity of this Congress is reflective of the nation, but that many of the issues minorities and women hope to see addressed aren’t specific just to their demographics. Anxieties over employment, health care and education, she says, cut across all segments of the population.

“For our new immigrant communities, making education affordable is very important,” Duckworth says. “Many haven’t had the time to accumulate the wealth other families have, and they need access to those programs. I’ve been working on issues that may be population-specific, but I’ve found that with groups I’ve talked to, the issues that are important to them are important to the larger population as well.”

Walsh, 51, managed to find the national spotlight even in a race seemingly defined on the Republican side by controversial comments about violence against women and female reproductive rights. Walsh could not be reached for comment on this article.

Walsh has often been a lightning rod for controversy. During a 1996 campaign for Congress that Walsh lost by 26 percentage points, he reportedly unveiled a birthday cake with 87 candles for his opponent, 87-year-old incumbent Sydney Yates, for which he drew criticism. In his 2010 bid against Melissa Bean, Walsh, with little support from the party establishment and billing himself as a Tea Party conservative, edged out the incumbent by 291 votes in a cycle that saw the Democratic majority in the House fall to Republicans.

It was perhaps not surprising that Walsh called a lot of national attention to himself during this past campaign, though this time, it was part of a problem endemic to high-profile Republican candidates. Damning statements from Republican U.S. Senate candidates who went on to lose thought-to-be-winnable seats, such as Todd Akin of Missouri (who expressed doubt at the likelihood of pregnancies arising from “legitimate rape,”) and Richard Mourdock of Indiana (who said that despite the abhorrent nature of rape, pregnancies arising from it were still “gifts from God”), happened around the time Walsh captured his own headlines.

After an October 18 debate with Duckworth, Walsh was quoted as saying that exceptions to abortion bans aren’t needed because “modern technology” can almost always save the life of the mother, for which he drew criticism from people rebutting the view as false.

Speaking at a campaign event about what he called a “radical strain of Islam,” he said: “It’s here. It’s in Elk Grove. It’s in Addison. It’s in Elgin.” It was a viewpoint that drove some Chicago-area Muslims to organize against him, says Zaher Sahloul of the Chicago Islamic Organization of Greater Chicago. That effect also highlights what kind of changes the Republican Party as a whole is going to need to make going forward, Sahloul says.

“I know there is a sizable Muslim community in the 8th District, and there was a lot of mobilization in the [Islamic] organizations to support Duckworth’s campaign because of these comments,” Sahloul says. “I think in the future, the changing community is probably going to turn Democratic, especially if the message of the Republican Party is divisive. I would say in the past, the Muslim community was conservative, but when you have Republicans talking over and over about divisive issues, exploiting immigrants and the other minorities, I think that will not help.”

Dominguez says Walsh may also have suffered due to the perception of Tea Party candidates taking too hard a line on economic policies, which voters in many cases seem to have rejected. Combined with his comments on some minorities and women’s issues, it added up to a loss, he says.

“I think the Tea Party fell out of favor,” Dominguez says. “Joe Walsh represented the sect that was beholden to not raising taxes. It’s something the people overwhelmingly rejected. I think it was all these factors working at the same time.”

Duckworth, the first Asian-American woman to serve Illinois in Congress, prepares to take her seat alongside many other firsts for women: Four representatives from New Hampshire who comprise that state’s first congressional delegation made up entirely of women, the first openly gay female senator, the first representative who openly identifies as bisexual. Duckworth said she’s proud of what that represents for America.

“I think that it’s good that our Congress is more diverse because our nation is more diverse,” she says. “My district is more diverse, and I think it all adds to the strength of this nation.”

Kenneth Lowe is the enterprise reporter for the Decatur Herald & Review and Bloomington Pantagraph.

Illinois Issues, January 2013