Fairview Heights, IL – U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth knows political success in the Metro-East begins at the union hall. So she opened the regional headquarters of her U.S. Senate campaign in the Steamfitters Local 439 training center office.
A large crowd squeezed into the small space recently to meet her and hear her comments. Local 439 Business Manager Charles “Totsie” Bailey introduced Duckworth.
“I’ve heard about her for years, and I always wanted to meet her,” he said, and then he joked, “If people don’t vote for this lady, they ought to lose their voting rights.”
When the candidate spoke, she pledged her dedication to union rights.
“I want to make it clear that I stand with labor, and I stand with the right of Americans to organize,” she said.
Duckworth has had an extraordinary life so far, and now she is seeking to oust Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican, to restore Illinois to having a second Democrat U.S. Senator in addition to Sen. Dick Durbin.
She has been elected to Congress twice already from a Chicago-area House district. She previously served as assistant secretary for Veterans’ Affairs under President Obama, and before that was Illinois Director of Veterans Affairs.
She first came to prominence in 2004, when the Blackhawk helicopter she was flying for the Army National Guard in Iraq was shot down, costing her both of her legs.
In the primary election, she faces Chicago attorney Andrea Zopp, a former prosecutor, head of the Chicago Urban League and member of the Chicago School Board; and state Sen. Napoleon Harris, a former NFL player who now owns pizza franchises.
But Duckworth is much better known than her opponents and now carries vital union endorsements, including those of the Illinois AFL-CIO, with 1.5 million members, and the SEIU Illinois State Council, with 150,000 members.
A LIFE STORY
At the office opening, she shared some of her life story and opinions with the highly favorable crowd.
Among the labor leaders and supporters attending were Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Dale Stewart, St. Clair County Clerk and former state representative Tom Holbrook, IBEW Local 309 Business Manager Tim Evans, former U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart (who was Duckworth’s commanding officer in Iraq), Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council President Bill Thurston, Congressional candidate C.J. Baricevic, Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan and St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern.
Duckworth described how her mother immigrated from Thailand after the Vietnam War and how her father lifted himself out of poverty through military service and the G.I. Bill, only to be abandoned by employers later in his life.
“They told him, ‘You’re great, but you’re over-qualified.’ That’s just a polite way of saying ‘You’re too old,’ ” she said.
The family went through their savings, became qualified for food stamps and school breakfasts and had to move out of their house into a small apartment. Her teen-age job earning $3.10 an hour went a long way toward paying the bills.
“Every month, we fell further behind,” she said. “When we ran out of food stamps, we went hungry.”
She credits a dedicated English teacher at her public high school with helping her get into college and at times, literally, feeding her and her classmates.
“Because the public school was there, I was able to go to college,” she said. “When the time came to join the National Guard, I was ready.”
Because of these experiences, she did not grow up hating government and seeking to diminish it, as today’s Republicans do.
“These things are all slipping away because of the decisions we are making to prioritize the rich, the top 10 percent, over the working people,” she said.
Sen. Kirk, she said, may cultivate a moderate image but does not vote that way, instead consistently voting for plans and policies to further enrich the wealthiest people in the nation and reduce the state of working people.
“For just one example, he doesn’t want kids to be able to refinance their student loan debt, which crushes them just as they are getting their lives started,” she said.
She intends to focus on reducing waste in government, including at the Department of Defense, and saying Medicare is drained by cheaters of $50 million. “I want Medicare to be there,” she said. “You’ve got to get after the cheaters.”
Kirk has also voted consistently against the Affordable Care Act, which is helping millions of Americans obtain medical insurance, Duckworth noted. The program is not perfect – needing more providers and more young people to sign up – but it should be improved, not killed.
“It’s a work in progress, and we’ll be working on it for a long time,” she said.
Not surprisingly, she decried Republican pledges not to consider Obama’s pending nomination of someone for the Supreme Court vacancy.
“They hate him so much that they would go against the Constitution,” she said. Kirk, she noted, has said nothing on the subject.
The next president, she added, may have up to three Supreme Court vacancies to fill because three of the surviving justices are in their 80s, giving this year’s election more far-reaching consequences.
Said Duckworth: “This election is about the next 30 years of this country.”