By CARL GREEN
Collinsville, IL – U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, of Illinois, was sworn into office Jan. 3, but she already had began plunging ahead with the personal part of her new job with a barnstorming tour of southern Illinois Dec. 28 and 29 to thank supporters and renew the acquaintances she made during the long election season.
Her stops included a chili luncheon with a big crowd of union members and labor leaders at the Steamfitters Local 439 hall south of Collinsville and a visit to the United Steel Workers hall in Granite City. Later,she stopped in East St. Louis before driving on to Carbondale.
At the Steamfitters’ hall, she said her intention was to make sure southern Illinois and all of downstate are considered in future decision-making.
“The state doesn’t end with Interstate 80,” she told the Labor Tribune. “I made a commitment during the campaign that my being in this part of the state was not just going to be because I was running for election, but because I want to serve the entire state.”
Her knowledge of southern Illinois goes back to the three years when her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey, commanded the National Guard unit in Carbondale.
“This is just the start, to say, ‘Look, I’m here as your Senator, and even before I’m sworn in, I’m back to listen to people, to hear what I need to work on and what I need to do in Washington. You’ll see a lot of me,” she said.
“This is not a campaign event, and this is not an official event,” she added. “I’m just here to eat some chili and listen to people.”
Duckworth said she was especially thankful for the Labor support that helped her defeat incumbent Senator Mark Kirk during a Republican year at the polls.
A SENATOR’S STORY
Duckworth has had one of the most unusual lives of anyone elected to Congress. Born in Thailand, she went to the University of Hawaii and then George Washington University for a master’s in international affairs. While in Illinois to study political science, she joined the Illinois Army National Guard and became one of the first Army women to fly combat missions in Iraq.
When her helicopter was hit and crashed in 2004, she lost both her legs and partial use of her right arm. She was awarded the Purple Heart and worked to recover at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, also testifying before Congress about veterans’ issues.
In 2006, Duckworth was named director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. She helped to create a tax credit for employers who hire veterans and started the first 24-hour veterans’ crisis hotline, among other accomplishments.
In 2009, President Obama appointed her Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs. She worked to help homeless veterans, created the Office of Online Communications and took on the challenges of female and Native American veterans. She was elected to Congress in Illinois’ 8th District 2014, serving two terms. She also volunteers at food pantries and has continued her education, earning a PhD in human services from Capella University in 2015.
“What I’m actually working on right now is trying to get on the right committees to help the people of Illinois, especially working families,” she said. “I asked to be on Commerce, and I also asked to be on Environment and Public Works, and an important part of that is the Public Works part – any type of infrastructure investment plan by the new administration would go through that committee. That would bring significant jobs to the local economy. We could actually invest in improving our infrastructure.”
She acknowledges that Democrats will have a hard time getting things done in the Republican-dominated 115th Congress.
“We actually have more Senators than we did before – we have two more, but it’s still not enough,” she said. “I think it’s going to be really hard, when you look at who the incoming president is nominating.”
That’s especially true for Labor, she noted, because of the appointment of Andy Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, which owns the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast-food chains.
“The guy who’s going to be in charge of the Labor Department doesn’t believe in the minimum wage,” Duckworth said. “So we’re going to have some real fights when it comes to workers’ rights, and we’re going to have some real fights when it comes to basic standards – not just things like prevailing wage, but safety and all of those issues.
“We’ve seen that problem with the governor we have in Illinois, but now we see it in the incoming president. In the department that should be protecting workers, he is appointing people who actually oppose workers’ rights. I’m looking forward to being in that fight.”
One thing she’s not used to is being called “Senator” all the time.
“Not yet,” she said. “When I hear ‘Senator,’ I turn around and look for Senator Durbin.”