Tammy Duckworth leaned on a pool table at Champs Sports Bar in suburban Chicago and told reporters waste is rampant in Iraq and taxpayers are being ripped off by defense contractors like Halliburton.
A wide-screen television behind her carried silent pictures of the previous night’s sporting events. Yellowing photographs of golf greats lined the walls. She leaned on the table for support to stand up.
Duckworth, a Democrat, takes great pride in the military. But she is against the war in Iraq.
The 38-year old Army major walks with prosthetic legs and canes, moving like a weary cross-country skier. A rocket-propelled grenade smashed into the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting over Iraq on Nov. 12, 2004. Duckworth lost her legs and came close to dying during a series of emergency operations.
“There is absolutely no reason I should have survived the shoot down of my chopper,” she said. “They could have left me behind because they thought I was dead.”
Instead, fellow soldiers hauled her body to a waiting medevac helicopter that flew her to an Army hospital in Baghdad. “Doctors said if I got there four minutes later I would have bled to death.”
Two years later, she is running for Congress in Illinois’ historically Republican 6th District, represented for 32 years by Henry Hyde, who is retiring. She was recruited by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., during her lengthy recuperation at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. This is her first foray into politics.
Her Republican opponent, state Sen. Peter Roskam, says he best represents the conservative thinking of the district’s voters. A 45-year-old trial lawyer, he has represented his constituents for 13 years in the state Legislature. He grew up in the district and says he knows it better than Duckworth, who lives three miles outside its boundary.
Republicans are determined to keep the seat. Vice President Dick Cheney and First Lady Laura Bush have both campaigned for Roskam. On Thursday, President Bush attended an event in Chicago that raised $1.1 million, half of which was supposed to go to Roskam.
“President Bush carried the district in 2004 by 6 percent and our party will do what it takes to keep it Republican in November,” said Jonathan Collegio, press secretary of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Both parties are expected to spend heavily on television advertising in the closing weeks of the campaign.
Dressed in a black pants suit and wearing a bejeweled American flag pin, Duckworth paused for an interview after addressing 50 school teachers in the town of Westmont. It was a hard-hitting attack on Republican foreign and domestic policies, punctuated with self-deprecating humor.
“I don’t want to fall into my audience,” she said, laughing. “That’s why I’m holding on to this table.”
Duckworth asked to be trained as a Black Hawk pilot because it is one of the few jobs in the military in which women can taste combat. “I wanted to take the same risks as the male reservists,” she said.
Her opponent expresses respect for her military service. But he says he is more qualified to represent the district.
“I am the local candidate with local support,” said Roskam, whose family has lived in the district for generations. “You can’t replace the grassroots elements of a campaign. This is a Republican district, and it has been historically.”
During one typical day, Roskam stopped at the Wyndermere, an assisted living center in Wheaton. He was greeted warmly by the residents, who were finishing their dishes of Jell-O topped with whipped cream. They had just been serenaded by a quartet of seniors wearing white suits and red bowties.
“What many Democrats don’t realize is that Roskam is a conservative but he doesn’t breathe fire,” said Nathan Gonzalez, political editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Report. “After meeting him, I think he is thoughtful, funny and self-deprecating.”
A one-time school teacher and former director of Educational Assistance Ltd., a nonprofit scholarship program for disadvantaged youth, Roskam brands his opponent an outsider picked by the Chicago machine and national Democratic Party. He says Duckworth embraces the party’s liberal agenda, and not the conservative values of voters in the 6th District.
“Being from the district gives our candidate the ability to talk about what’s important in the district,” said Andy McKenna, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party.
Roskam also charges that Duckworth has raised a lot of campaign money from outside Illinois.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics, Duckworth’s contributions come from labor unions and liberal activists like Barbra Streisand. According to the Chicago Tribune, Duckworth has raised more money than any Democrat ever in the 6th District.
Roskam’s contributions come from Republican and conservative organizations. The finance, insurance and real estate sectors provide much of his money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In the last reporting quarter Duckworth raised $1,883,983, and Roskam raised $1,867,756. New figures will be released later this month.
Once overwhelmingly homogeneous and Republican, but population growth in the 6th District has led to a greater ethnic mix, and voting patterns are gradually changing. In the 2004 election, an under-funded liberal Democratic candidate won 44 per cent of the vote running against Hyde.
The Iraq war looms large in the race because Duckworth personifies its human cost.
“Her status as a veteran of the Iraq war who lost both legs really brings the spotlight of the war into the Illinois 6th District,” said David Wasserman, House race editor for Crystal Ball, an oddsmaker Web site run by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “It is one of the few districts in the country where the vote is coming down to the Iraq war.”
Roskam’s position is that the United States must stay the course in the war and not disclose a timetable for troop withdrawal. Duckworth has tried to be more nuanced. She said she is opposed to the war, and believes it diverted the United States from the real target — international terrorism. But she hasn't discussed a timetable either, saying only that she wants American troops brought back as soon as Iraqi soldiers become combat ready.
The candidates sharply differ on key domestic issues. Roskam says he wants tighter border security to stanch the flow of illegal immigrants and penalties for illegal workers. Duckworth says she supports a program that would allow illegal immigrants already in the country to work toward citizenship.
Roskam says he wants the Bush tax cuts to be made permanent and to make more cuts. Duckworth says she backs some of the president’s tax cuts, but she opposes breaks for the wealthiest Americans.
The race is considered a must-win for Democrats, who need to pick up 15 seats to gain a majority in the House of Representatives. Republicans say they are determined to keep the seat they have held for more than three decades.
Most political watchers agree the race is too close to call right now. A recent Reuters news agency sampling of 500 voters showed Duckworth ahead by 43 to 38 percent. The margin of error is 4.5 percent, meaning it's a dead heat.
“It’s a toss-up and no one is ahead,” Wasserman said.