"Tammy represents something that would make the district proud in the sense that she's got a life of service, and no one is going to trivialize her or characterize her in ways that Republicans have sometimes tried to do with others."
Democratic strategist David Axelrod
(Christian Science Monitor) This story was written by Amanda Paulson Tammy Duckworth is exceptionally upbeat.
"Hi, I'm the Iraq war veteran who's running for Congress," she chirps to passersby on a campaign tour through Elmhurst, launching into a discussion of Pell grants, healthcare, or the Iraq war.
It's a long way from where Ms. Duckworth was just a year ago: in a bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, unsure whether she'd walk again. In November 2004, she'd been injured when a grenade ripped through the helicopter she was flying in Iraq, ultimately losing both legs and partial movement in her right arm.
Now, Duckworth is a rising Democratic hopeful, the woman whom party leaders hope can take back the district Rep. Henry Hyde (R) is vacating after more than 30 years in office.
Of several Iraq war vets the Democratic Party is backing this year, she has arguably the highest profile, garnering national attention well before she's even competed in the party primary. But her campaign is attracting notice not just because of her veteran status. Rather, it's because the idea that a Democrat like Ms. Duckworth could represent Chicago's outer-ring western suburbs - once unthinkable in this Republican stronghold - has become a very real possibility.
"As city people move out to these suburbs, the days of pure Republicanism are over," says Dick Simpson, a former alderman and a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "There is a tidal wave that's changing the politics out there."
Duckworth is a late entry to the race, since she was unable to officially enter until the Army released her from active duty in mid- December. If she's ever to test her mettle against a Republican, she'll have to prevail first over fellow Democrats Christine Cegelis, who won an impressive 44 percent of the vote against Hyde in 2004, and Wheaton College professor Lindy Scott in Illinois' March 21 primary.
But she's already won the endorsement of the AFL-CIO and support from big-name Illinois politicians like Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama, and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And in the few weeks she had in the last quarter of 2005, she raised more than $120,000 - substantially more than either Democratic opponent. She still has far less money than Peter Roskam, the Republican she could face this fall, but the initial windfall bodes well for her future.
Democratic leaders hope that Duckworth's veteran status will help win voters in a district that is still conservative, though increasingly disenchanted with the Republican Party.
"The district itself is ripe for change," says David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist advising Duckworth's campaign. "Tammy represents something that would make the district proud in the sense that she's got a life of service, and no one is going to trivialize her or characterize her in ways that Republicans have sometimes tried to do with others."
Duckworth is the first to acknowledge that her Iraq experience is what won her a spot in the race. But she tries to move the conversation to other issues - particularly education and healthcare - and her experience prior to Iraq, working at Rotary International and studying healthcare issues as a political science doctoral candidate.
"You'll rarely see me bring up Iraq and the war on my own," Duckworth says, although she is quick to criticize the Bush administration's war decisions. Her refrain is that she was injured "18 months after the 'mission was accomplished,' " according to President Bush. Being a war veteran, she says, "gives you a platform, but that's all it does. If there isn't substance, you'd fall off pretty quickly."
Some of her substance, Duckworth says, comes from personal experiences: the $70,000 in student loans she graduated with, or her own experience needing medical care.
"I was lucky to have world-class healthcare at Walter Reed, but I understand that everyone doesn't have that access," she says, sipping a latte during a break from morning campaigning.