Democratic Congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth was the epitome of composure during a Meet the Candidates event with Elmhurst College students, until freshman Collin Marshall asked why she was running attack ads about her opponent’s personal life instead of focusing on the economy and jobs, as she had promised.
Duckworth’s newest ads call incumbent Republican Joe Walsh a “deadbeat dad,” a reference to his ex-wife’s claims that he owed her back child support payments. The complaint she filed seeking those payments has since been settled, and Walsh has asked Duckworth to pull the ads.
But the Iraq War veteran assertively defended them, saying she was forced to respond to personal attacks that Walsh first launched against her.
“Joe Walsh is a bully. But when you try to stand up to bullies, they call foul,” Duckworth said during the October 23 event. “If he wants to make this campaign about character, then we’re going to have a discussion about character.”
During the hourlong meeting with about 100 students and community members in the College’s Blume Board Room, Duckworth fielded questions on subjects ranging from campaign finance reform to high-speed rail systems. She and Walsh are running to represent Illinois’s 8th Congressional District, whose boundaries were redrawn last year and now include portions of Elmhurst.
Duckworth announced her candidacy in 2011 after stepping down as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, a position she was appointed to in 2008 by President Barack Obama’s administration. Duckworth’s efforts have centered on helping veterans and the disabled, and she often punctuated the discussion by touting her ability to find common ground among opposing groups to get things done.
While serving in Iraq in 2004 as a helicopter pilot, Duckworth lost both her legs and her right arm in a rocket-propelled grenade attack. Surgeons reattached her arm, which carries a deep scar, and she relies on prosthetic limbs and a wheelchair.
A disabled student at the meeting expressed the opinion that the government traps the disabled in a cycle of poverty.
“You work and lose benefits, or you don’t work to get benefits,” he told Duckworth. “What are your views on that, and what can you do to change that for the better?”
Duckworth agreed, saying that the system is set up in such a way that qualifying for benefits means you can’t work, or that you have to be considered “100 percent disabled.”
“I would be someone who would work with anyone that would like to look at those rules and empower people to work. It’s also about having access to the equipment and tools to live the life you want to live,” she said, highlighting the necessity of better transportation in the suburbs. “None of these problems can be fixed by any one person or party. It’s going to take a real hard collaboration.”
Prior to the meeting, Duckworth met briefly with students for a roundtable discussion on college affordability, financial aid, job creation and youth entrepreneurship.
During that discussion, hosted by the national Young Invincibles organization, students’ concerns reached Duckworth on a more personal level. She told them that had been working on her doctoral degree at Northern Illinois University when she was deployed to Iraq. She returned to school two years ago to finish, and has $70,000 in student loan debt.
“I am 44 years old and still trying to pay off student loans,” she said. “The issues we’re talking about today are very close to my heart because they are also my life.”