Illinois U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth quietly has been writing an autobiography, her personal story of going from selling flowers on a Hawaiian roadside amid poverty and losing both legs in a combat helicopter crash in Iraq to an improbable rise in national politics.
Her life’s latest turn could become the book’s climax -- a shot at becoming Joe Biden’s running mate. Duckworth is one of at least 13 women being vetted by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s team, and it’s the power of her biography that has helped land her in such select company.
“She’s got an incredible life story and as I got into it, I thought this is something the American people will be stunned to hear the details of,” said Duckworth’s political mentor Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who has read the initial chapters of her book. “She’s done so much in her life, overcoming adversity so many different ways. She’s got a great story, and I think she’d be a great running mate for Joe Biden.”
Of course there’s more to the selection of a running mate than having a dramatic personal story.
Would the candidate be able to assume the duties of the nation’s highest office at a moment’s notice? Could the candidate become a true partner with whom Biden is comfortable?
And then there’s the political calculation of whether the No. 2 selection can rev up the party’s base or reach beyond it to deliver votes in pivotal swing states.
For a nonincumbent candidate, the choice of a running mate is the first true example of presidential decision-making, a statement on the candidate’s values and agenda. For Biden, who is 77 years old and may serve only one term, the pick largely will be viewed as a potential successor.
“You really have to start by saying, ‘Would reachable voters perceive this person as being a plausible president?’” said Joel Goldstein, a St. Louis University law professor and the author of two books on the vice presidency.
“Ultimately, it comes down to a question of: Does Duckworth present herself as somebody who’s ready to excel on the national stage, and is she somebody who Vice President Biden sees as a person who can be his political partner for the administration?” Goldstein said.
Duckworth’s personal story, quick rise through Democratic politics and deep understanding of military and veterans issues are countered by some political drawbacks.
She doesn’t have a long legislative track record of accomplishments. She’s run only one statewide race and never a national campaign. She is not from a battleground state. And while as a Thai American she is a woman of color, many Democrats believe Biden should choose a Black woman as the nation confronts a history of systemic racism following the police killing of George Floyd.
Among many in the Washington beltway class, Duckworth isn’t top of mind in a group that includes former presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. The same holds true nationally, with a recent New York Times/Siena poll finding Duckworth is unknown by 72% of voters.
Still, the senator from suburban Hoffman Estates remains among a select group of seven or eight candidates to have submitted records and sit for interviews with the campaign staff, according to various reports.
“I don’t know where she fits in,” Democratic strategist David Axelrod said of Duckworth’s place in the quadrennial veepstakes.
The Chicago political veteran, who was an architect of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, worked as the media strategist on Duckworth’s first 2006 campaign and backed her successful 2012 House bid.
“She has an incomparable personal story that is very compelling,” Axelrod said. “The question that Biden will have to ask relative to her is: Does she match this particular moment and does her experience measure up to the job?”
For her part, Duckworth said finding herself in contention for the post hasn’t changed her approach to her job. She said she’s still calling out Trump “for his racism” and “failure to lead” on the coronavirus. The only difference has been handing over records and answering questions from campaign vetters.
“I believe that Joe Biden is going to pick the right person that he has the best relationship with to govern,” Duckworth said in an interview. “I think he’s trying to duplicate in many ways the relationship he had with President Obama, and I think that that was a strong one.”
‘That’s just Joe'
Duckworth met then-Sen. Biden when Durbin invited her as his guest to the State of the Union speech in 2005. She said the relationship really took hold when she gave a speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention introducing Biden’s son Beau, who in turn introduced his father as the vice presidential nominee.
Duckworth said she has a great relationship with Biden and even more so with his wife, Jill Biden, who focused heavily on veterans issues as second lady. Duckworth recounted how Vice President Biden called her after she won a second House term in 2014.
“It was this voice, ‘Tammy, it’s Joe. How ya doin?’ Joe? ‘Yeah, you know, the vice president.’ I told him, ‘Mr. Vice President, why are you calling me?' There were bigger and more critical races ... It wasn’t exactly a nail biter, and he says, ‘No, you did a great job, and I just wanted to say thank you,’” Duckworth recalled. “That’s just the way he is. He calls you and chats. I think I have a very warm relationship with him.”
Last month, Duckworth co-hosted a virtual fundraiser for Biden. In thanking her, Biden credited the Kennedy family with the expression, “Moral courage is even more rare than physical courage in the battlefield.”
“But I couldn’t think of anything that demonstrated more courage than you in that helicopter,” Biden told Duckworth. “No one has more courage or compassion than you.”
In writing her autobiography, Duckworth has completed the chapters detailing her childhood up through her enlistment -- at least those are the ones Durbin said he has read.
It’s unclear whether the senator has a book deal or a publication date, as her spokesman declined to comment.
Her story starts in Bangkok, where she was born Ladda Duckworth to a Thai mother of Chinese descent and an American father. She grew up living throughout Southeast Asia as her dad, a retired Marine, worked on refugee and housing projects. Along the way, he lost his job and the family fell into poverty as she attended high school in Hawaii.
She graduated from the University of Hawaii and later received a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Duckworth joined the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps while in graduate school and later became a commissioned officer in the Army Reserve, choosing to fly helicopters because it was one of the few combat jobs open to women.
She married Bryan Bowlsbey, a major in the Illinois National Guard, in 1993.
On Nov. 12, 2004, Duckworth was co-piloting a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq when her aircraft was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Then 36, she lost almost all of her right leg and her left leg below the knee and badly injured her right arm. She nearly bled to death.
“After having an RPG blow up in your lap, everything else isn’t that tough,” Duckworth once said.
Within a few months, she had been awarded a Purple Heart, promoted to major and attended the State of the Union address with Durbin. She spent nearly a year recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, harboring dreams of becoming one of the few amputee pilots in military history.
But by December 2005, she was running for Congress instead, recruited by Durbin to make a bid for the longtime northwest suburban Republican seat held by the retiring Henry Hyde.
Bolstered by then-Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who was in charge of the party’s effort to retake control of the House, national Democrats raised millions for Duckworth but she came up just short against Republican Peter Roskam.
After stints with the state and national departments of veterans affairs, Duckworth again ran for Congress in 2012 after Illinois Democrats redrew a GOP-leaning suburban district in their favor. Duckworth won easily.
Four years later, she made her run at the Senate, defeating first-term incumbent Mark Kirk, who had suffered a massive stroke and was viewed as the nation’s most vulnerable Republican senator.
Duckworth’s time in D.C. has been marked by several firsts: first woman with a disability to be elected to the U.S. House, first member of Congress born in Thailand, first U.S. senator to give birth in office and first lawmaker to bring their infant to the Senate floor for a vote after the chamber changed its centuries-old rules.
Asked if she ever feels her unlikely story from Bangkok to Baghdad to Capitol Hill overshadows her legislative work, Duckworth replied that, “who I am, my background and my service gets me through the door” with individuals, many of them more conservative, who might not otherwise listen to a junior senator from deep blue Illinois.
She then offered what could be interpreted as a veiled pitch for the VP slot: “I think to truly win this next election, you need to be able to win the heart of the country. And that means you have to be able to talk to folks in Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan and all those places.”
During her two terms in the House, Duckworth had few legislative accomplishments, though it can be difficult to break through as a newcomer in the minority party. In the upper chamber, she has made some headway.
Duckworth passed an infrastructure bill that prevents governors from delaying projects in neighboring states, another that allows veteran small business owners to acquire surplus federal equipment and property and a law requiring airports to provide rooms for nursing mothers and restroom changing tables.
Most recently, Duckworth has pushed for a measure requiring independent investigations of police shootings, which grew out of the Chicago police murder of Laquan McDonald.
There are aspects of Duckworth’s record that are not as well-known nationally and not always as flattering as her trailblazing rise to office -- much of it tied to her time as a bureaucrat in the VA.
Duckworth was appointed in Nov. 2006 by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to run the state’s veterans affairs department. After Obama was elected president, Duckworth was appointed as one of several assistant secretaries at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
A Chicago Tribune review of Duckworth’s record during her Senate bid found that her time at the federal VA mostly was focused on public relations while many of her initiatives as leader of the state VA fell flat -- including a seldom-used veterans health care program, a tax credit program for businesses that hire veterans and a student debt program for VA nurses.
In both roles, Duckworth has said she did her best to bring awareness to critical issues facing veterans, touting state efforts for a mental health hotline for suicidal veterans, traumatic brain injury screenings for wounded soldiers and a new lottery game benefiting veterans.
In Washington, Duckworth has built solid relationships across the party, said Illinois U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, the chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“I literally cannot think of one group within House Democrats that she not only had good relationships with, but strong relationships,” Bustos said. “It is very hard to do.”
On the attack
A vice presidential pick is often assigned the task of aggressively attacking the sitting president. It’s a comfortable role for Duckworth, who regularly appears on cable news to criticize Trump.
Duckworth has dubbed Trump “Cadet Bone Spurs” in reference to his military deferment during Vietnam. She once took to the Senate floor to say “my diaper-wearing 20-month-old daughter has better impulse control than this president” in creating risks of war through his use of the military.
“When he ventures into the military space with his grandiose plans for parades and military escapades, I can tell that it goes right to her heart,” Durbin said.
Duckworth forcefully spoke out against Trump’s use of the military to clear peaceful protesters from Washington’s Lafayette Park. She said Trump had “trampled the First Amendment rights of Americans” for a “disgusting, crass photo op.”
“I am coming from a place where I have the ability to push back on him in a way that someone who has not served can’t,” Duckworth said. “I’m not going to watch him bully other people when I can stand up and say, ‘I see you. You are a fake patriot. You are a coward, who did not serve his country when the country called. So, don’t talk to me about patriotism.‘”
This week, after reports that surfaced that the Trump administration had received intelligence in March about a suspected Russian effort to pay the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Duckworth demanded Senate hearings and was again sharply critical of the president.
“I am disgusted, flabbergasted,” Duckworth said in an MSNBC interview Monday. “He continues to put Russia’s interests above the well-being of American troops, and that is absolutely unacceptable.”
With only weeks to go before Biden unveils his choice, it’s hard to know how closely he is weighing Duckworth, Axelrod said, while noting that it’s not surprising she’s in the mix.
“She served in the military for decades and she sacrificed in a really, really pronounced way for her country. That is a big asset,” he said. “It’s one thing to debate war. It’s another thing to understand what the weight of war is in a very personal way, and she does.”
Durbin called Duckworth “a good campaigner” with “an appeal that reaches out on a bipartisan basis.”
“She’s straightforward. She’s not a phony. She’s not a showoff. She’s a war hero. She’s a mother, a woman of color,” Bustos said.
Goldstein, the expert on the vice presidency, agreed that Duckworth’s unique attributes would “check off important boxes” during the vetting process.
“There are things about her that distinguish her from the other people that Vice President Biden is considering,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean she’ll be selected.”
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