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What's Next for Tammy Duckworth?

When Tammy Duckworth her Congressional race, disappointment resonated well beyond Chicago's western suburbs.


When Tammy Duckworth lost November's race for the 6th Congressional District by 2 percent, disappointment resonated well beyond Chicago's western suburbs. The Iraq war vet had been a darling of the national media, courted by top Democrats and famously assisted by Michael J. Fox on the campaign trail. Vying for retiring Rep. Henry Hyde's seat, Duckworth fell short a few thousand votes to Republican Peter Roskam. In the same way she found strength after losing her legs when a rocket-propelled grenade tore into her helicopter cockpit in Iraq, Duckworth says she took a deep breath and started looking for her next mission. Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced last month that Duckworth will be the new director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs.

What surprised you about campaigning?

I never expected when I started the campaign that there would be that many people truly committed to the same things I was committed to who would come out and work that hard. That was really tremendous and very humbling. I knew there were many people out there who are very politically active who always get involved in campaigns, but I had a lady who was in her 90s making phone calls almost every night.

Did you expect that there would be dirty tricks?

I expected that there would be, [but there were] a few things I didn't expect. The other side put my home telephone number up in one of their commercials. It basically said a bunch of misstatements about my position, and then it said, if you disagree with her, just tell her and then gave my personal home phone number.

Did you get a lot of phone calls?

I did. At first I wasn't going to answer the phone, and then I thought, no, I'm not going to give over control of this, so I started answering the phone. I ended up having some great conversations because there were a lot of people being misled by these attack commercials. I'd say, no, that's not my position, this is my position. They'd say, but that's not what they said on TV, and I'd say, I know--you can't believe everything on TV.

It seems that your opponent Peter Roskam continually misinterpreted your views on Social Security in his ads. How effective do you think those ads were?

In retrospect, I think those ads the last three days, when they dumped an extra $2 million in negative commercials, and the telephone calls are probably what won the election for the other side--the scare tactics. The telephone calls were something I never expected. They were calling people at dinnertime, at children's bedtime and at 2 a.m. to annoy people and so that people would think it was from my campaign. I was really happy that we never ran a negative TV commercial. I don't know if people realize that. Anything that I paid for was a positive commercial. Even in his positive commercials, my opponent took the time to attack me. But I don't blame him at all--it worked. Ultimately at some point you have to just decide, do I want this bad enough to play the dirty tricks?

There's been a debate over whether the DNC provided enough funding for particular races. Do you think you received all the support you needed from the party?

I received tremendous support, but our side did not match what the other side spent. I think when you see the final FEC reports, you'll see that when you combine everything that was spent in support of me it was about $6 million. When you look at everything that was spent combined for my opponent, it was closer to $10 million. The Republicans spent more to get my opponent elected than they spent on the Allen-Webb [U.S.] Senate race in Virginia.

Why is that?

My personal theory is that at some point Speaker [Dennis] Hastert knew that he was going to lose the House, but he was not going to lose Henry Hyde's seat. I think my opponent had unlimited resources. I outraised him personally in terms of money that was raised, but in terms of money that was spent through independent expenditures by the state and national Republican Party, we were incredibly outspent.

Had you ever thought about being a politician when Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Rahm Emmanuel approached you about running?

I'd never really thought about it before. I had thought that I would do advocacy work on veterans' rights and on health care once I got out of the hospital. It's one thing to be an advocate for veterans and health care, but to actually be a member and be able to introduce legislation and help pass it along--how could I turn down the opportunity to be on the VA committee? It was really kind of a farfetched idea, but as the year went on, I realized more and more that it was definitely doable.

Many were surprised that you weren't endorsed by the VFW. If people like you aren't endorsed by the VFW, what kind of validity does that endorsement even hold?

I will tell you that I was surprised that they did that. I don't think you should endorse someone just because they're a veteran, but I've actually done veterans' advocacy work. The VFW had to make its own decisions, and they chose to play politics. I'm sure that a few phone calls were made, and that's how my opponent got the endorsement. I know that my VFW post was never asked and that many of the VFW posts in the district were never asked. Up until this year, the VFW has only endorsed incumbents, and then this year they changed their policy right at the end of the campaign, but never told anyone. People who were running in open races never applied to the VFW. Nobody knew that they had changed their policy. They only told people when they started endorsing people. I've never even seen my opponent's VFW questionnaire. Did he even fill one out? I haven't torn up my VFW card. There was a moment when I felt very much betrayed because this is what I was about, but I thought about it and realized, the VFW does wonderful work, and I'm not going to condemn the entire organization because of the actions of a few people.

As a newcomer to politics, how were you so poised on the campaign trail?

I don't know how poised I seemed. I know that I was always nervous. There are two things. One, I was speaking from the heart. When I talked about student loans, I talked about the fact that I still owe $70,000 in college student loan debt. The other aspect is that I'm an officer in the U.S. military. I had a job as the battle captain and assistant operations manager in Iraq that often times required me to stand up in front of a room of higher ranking officers and defend a particular strategy that I was advocating. I had to be willing to be criticized and justify my position. When I made those recommendations in Iraq, there were real lives at stake. It wasn't like I was talking about a nebulous policy that may or may not be happening in Washington. It was about real people, my friends, who were going to be climbing into helicopters to fly the mission that I planned. You learn very quickly to only say what you truly believe and understand because it's too important to gamble and discuss talking points when somebody's life is on the line.

Chuck Rangel is renewing calls for a military draft. What are your views on a draft?

As a member of the professional army I don't agree with it. I think that our military is powerful and strong because it's an all-volunteer force. I don't want to serve in combat next to someone who didn't volunteer to be there, who was forced to be there. I will tell you, though, that I believe strongly in national service. I would love to do something with voluntary service tied to tuition. When someone graduates from high school, they can volunteer for a year for Habitat for Humanity or join the military or do Teach for America. For every year they do this they get a year of college tuition.

Are you going to finish pursuing your doctorate in public health?

With all of my recent experiences, I'm switching to human services, emphasizing public health. I'm very interested in the idea of private institutions like Rotary and Lions clubs and public institutions and how these two types of organizations can and should work together to provide services to the community. I'm going to try to focus on that.

Do want to run for office again?

I'm not going to rule it out, but I'd be OK not having to think about it for a while. I'd like to roll up my sleeves and be productive for a little while. I'm very, very mission-focused. It comes from my military background. I'll find my mission.

What about flying?

I just started flying again last weekend for the first time since the day I was shot down. I'm only a helicopter pilot, so I've started taking lessons to fly small airplanes, just purely for pleasure. We took off, I took the controls, and then it was like a deep breath--I'm home. I have a lot of work to do in figuring out how I'm going to be able to fly with my prostheses, but it was just nice to be at the controls flying over DuPage County again.

Sen. Barack Obama campaigned for you. Should he run for president?

I think he'd make a tremendous president. I urge him to run, but he has to make that decision for himself. I couldn't even imagine what it would be like to run for president. Running for a congressional office was crazy, let alone something nationwide.

Published: December 01, 2006
Issue: Holiday 2006