Illinois U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth had a moment in the national spotlight Thursday evening as part of the final evening of the national broadcast of the all-remote Democratic National Convention.
She took the stage before Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden’s keynote address and acceptance speech, focusing her remarks on President Donald Trump’s military record and ridiculing him for not understanding the sacrifice service members and their families make.
“Instead, they have a Coward in Chief, who won’t stand up to Vladimir Putin, read his daily intelligence briefings, or even publicly admonish adversaries for reportedly putting bounties on our troops’ heads,” Duckworth said. “Donald Trump doesn’t deserve to call himself Commander-in-Chief for another four minutes, let alone another four years.”
Duckworth also spoke of Biden’s son, Beau, whom she introduced at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He died in 2015 from a form of brain cancer. She delivered her remarks Thursday evening from Washington, D.C., in view of the Capitol.
“Joe knows the fear military families live because he’s felt that dread of never knowing if your deployed loved one is safe,” Duckworth said, referring to Beau’s service.
Duckworth, the first-term Senator who now has the seat once held by former President Barack Obama, has played prominent roles in past Democratic conventions. But this year her political star catapulted to new heights after she was considered to be on Biden’s short-list of running mates. Instead, that role went to California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.
Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran, earlier this week made her first comments about what the vetting process was like.
“It was tough,” Duckworth told the Illinois Democratic delegation via video conference. “But it was such an educational experience.”
Duckworth had emerged as a contender for the No. 2 spot on the ticket amidst her high-profile skirmish with Trump and a Fox News Host and her campaign work for Biden — including in the key swing state of Wisconsin.
Duckworth also gradually gained national attention for her critical stance toward many of Trump’s actions that involve the military, from mocking his medical deferment from the Vietnam War draft, referring to him as “cadet bone spurs” to calling for Senate hearings into New York Times reports that Russia offered to pay bounties to Afghan militants to kill American soldiers.
From a Purple Heart to the U.S. Senate
Duckworth has seen a meteoric rise in politics over the last 15 years. Before that, she’d spent 23 years in the Reserve Forces, and retired in 2014 as a lieutenant colonel.
Duckworth was born in Thailand to a father who served in the U.S. military and a mother who is Thai-Chinese. Her family moved to Hawaii when she was in her teens. She frequently has said that her father was unemployed at the time and her family survived on food stamps. She made her way to Illinois where she began work in a doctoral program at Northern Illinois University, but her schooling was interrupted by her military service in Iraq.
In 2004, while piloting a Black Hawk helicopter for the Illinois Army National Guard in Iraq, her helicopter went down after being struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. Duckworth lost both of her legs and partial use of her right arm, but spent a year convalescing at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. She now has two prosthetic legs and frequently gets around in a wheelchair.
The Purple Heart recipient’s inspiring war story led to a path in government and politics, after being recruited to run for Congress by Illinois’ senior U.S. Senator, fellow Democrat Dick Durbin.
In 2006, she narrowly lost to Republican Peter Roskam in a bid to take control of a staunchly Republican congressional district that had been held by longtime U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde.
Duckworth was then appointed to lead the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs in the administration of then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, where she created what her office says was the country’s first 24/7 veterans’ crisis hotline. Her time as agency director would later be muddled by a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by two IDVA employees, which became a minor scandal in her bid for the U.S. Senate in 2016. The case was settled.
After being appointed to Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs in President Barack Obama’s administration, Duckworth again ran for Congress, this time in a different district than her 2006 run since congressional district boundaries had been redrawn. She defeated incumbent Republican Joe Walsh in 2012 in a contest Walsh now calls “a really difficult, ugly race.”
In 2016, she challenged Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk for his seat and beat him by more than 15 points.
Time in Senate
Since then, Duckworth has become the first U.S. senator to give birth while serving in office, and the first to bring her infant child onto the Senate floor after a rule change allowed for senators to bring their small kids into the chamber.
Duckworth thanked her colleagues then “for helping bring the Senate into the 21st century by recognizing that sometimes new parents also have responsibilities at work.” Duckworth and her husband have two daughters.
In her time as senator, Duckworth also helped lead a requirement that all airports establish a room for nursing mothers. She also co-founded the Environmental Justice Caucus, which seeks to highlight how environmental problems hurt poor communities and people of color.
Duckworth was also highly critical of former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s handling of multiple Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at a state-run veterans’ home in downstate Quincy, which was the subject of a years-long WBEZ investigation. She and Durbin ultimately called for the resignation of the head of the Department of Public Health after the station revealed emails showing Rauner’s administration knew of a botched repair job on the campus that mistakenly released a “broth” of legionella into its water supply.
Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.