THE DEFEAT DID NOT DAMPEN Duckworth's ambition to serve. In addition to her ongoing service in the National Guard, she ran the Illinois veterans' bureau from 2006 to 2009; when Obama took office he appointed her assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. She took an unvarnished approach. "I was all about admitting our failures," she says. "I was frustrated the VA had been in this culture of hiding its problems."
In both agencies Duckworth tackled the daunting challenge of reintegrating returning vets into the economy: As recently as last year, veterans aged 20 to 24 faced a whopping unemployment rate of 30 percent. As many as a quarter of vets suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and up to a quarter may have suffered a traumatic brain injury. Suicide has been rampant: According to the Center for a New American Security, between 2005 and 2010 service members took their own lives approximately once every 36 hours. Nearly a million veterans who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are now readjusting to life on the homefront.
In Illinois, Duckworth pushed successfully for tax credits for businesses that hire vets with wartime service. Under Obama, she boosted services for homeless vets and created an Office of Online Communications, staffing it with respected military bloggers to help with troops' day-to-day questions. Finally, in 2011, she resigned from the VA to make another run for Congress, in a more favorable 8th District redrawn last year by the Democratic-controlled Illinois Legislature. (Analysts have called the state's new electoral map one of the biggest gerrymanders in modern memory; on his campaign stops, Walsh complains that the Democrats' "road to Pelosi as speaker is through Illinois redistricting.")
Duckworth, who is still paying down about $70,000 in student debt, wants to see more programs incentivizing national service in exchange for education benefits.
At first glance, Duckworth has an easy mark in incumbent Walsh, who upended a longtime Democratic congresswoman by a mere 290 votes in the tea party revolt of 2010. He hasn't accomplished much legislatively: None of the 15 bills he has helped introduce—including plans to stop paying the United Nations, abolish scientific exploration of the North and South Poles, and deregulate milk prices—has made it out of committee.
But what Walsh has earned a name for is incendiary rhetoric: "They want the Hispanic vote; they want Hispanics to be dependent on government, just like they got African Americans dependent on government," he yelled at a questioner during a meet-and-greet in May. At a town hall meeting in June, he called Obama a "tyrant," then took it back, joking that the president "really isn't smart enough to know what that means." Walsh has also been in the spotlight over a lawsuit by his ex-wife alleging that the congressman failed to pay $117,437 in child support. (The parties settled privately this spring.)
But the election won't hinge on Walsh's antics—or Duckworth's biography—alone. In the 8th District, riddled with half-vacant office parks and foreclosed homes, economic issues are sure to be voters' prime focus. Duckworth's response is that government has a key role to play: Her experiences in uniform and at the VA (and as the child of a vet who once had to rely on food stamps) convinced her of the importance of an effective social safety net. "My strength is in finding ways to make the government work for the people," she says, "finding waste, or money that is not being properly used...or finding opportunities that are out there and making them work for the community." As someone who is still paying down about $70,000 in student debt, Duckworth also wants to see more programs incentivizing national service in exchange for education benefits.
If conservatives once hesitated to attack her, it didn't last long. At the VA, she found herself pulled into the death panels debate over an informational booklet titled "Your Life, Your Choices." Fox News assailed Duckworth and accused the VA of telling injured vets to "hurry up and die." Duckworth was unfazed, as she is by Walsh's attacks on her military profile, which she brushes aside as a distraction from voters' real concerns.
Then there's the charge that Duckworth is a puppet of the Illinois political machine. She was appointed to the state veterans' bureau by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who's now serving a 14-year prison term on corruption-related charges. She also has been in close contact with Chicago-based Obama advisers David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. "They're certainly friends," she says, adding that she runs some of her commercials by Axelrod before they air. As for Chicago's mayor: "I think that Rahm Emanuel being willing to answer the phone when I call is a good thing for the district."
Another vulnerability could be her decision to seek a degree from and endorse Capella University, an online for-profit school criticized for misleading veterans and treating them as a cash cow; a 2008 Department of Education audit found Capella had overcharged government lenders nearly $600,000 for student loans. "I absolutely welcome a full investigation into the for-profit schools, because I think a majority of them are predatory," Duckworth says. "The schools that are truly rigorous would be able to meet any standard that's set out there. I think Capella would make it."
Although the 8th District leans blue, money could be a key factor against Duckworth. As of July, corporate campaign donations to Walsh—a venture capitalist and former policy director for the conservative Heartland Institute—eclipsed donations to Duckworth by a 14-1 margin. Walsh got a third of his money from PACs; his top donors include defense contractors, corporate lobbyists, and hedge funders. Nearly 90 percent of Duckworth's donations came from individuals. In one effort to counter Walsh's war chest, Duckworth boosted her funds with a July benefit concert by "the real Joe Walsh"—the Eagles singer—who is represented by the talent agency run by Rahm's brother Ari Emanuel.
THE DUCKWORTH CAMPAIGN MOVES between events with military precision. The candidate rides shotgun in a young staffer's SUV, hoisting herself into the seat with twitchy triceps and expertly disassembling her legs to save space, propping them at her side. On arrival, she reattaches the legs and clambers out as a staffer grabs a lightweight wheelchair from the cargo bay, often bringing along a barstool that Duckworth sits on during long meet-and-greets.A volunteer works Illinois' 8th District, seen as key for Democrats to retake Congress.
Candidates have to walk, stand, talk, shake hands, answer questions, smile a lot, and rinse and repeat at a grueling pace. When Duckworth first got her new legs she could barely walk, and she couldn't sit for more than a few hours at a time. Even now, you can read the weariness on her face. Taking a step with her right leg, the one that's gone up to the hip, is like "trying to control a broom by holding on to the last two inches of the broom handle," as she's put it. She flings her hip into each pace. A grass median becomes a hazard. So do cracks in the sidewalk. And these days there are lots of cracked sidewalks in suburban Chicago.
This particular weekend has been jammed with campaign events—breakfast with organizers of a political action committee, a meet-and-greet at a barbecue restaurant, a small-donor fundraiser at a teacher's house—but Duckworth insists on a final stop: a summerfest in the elm-lined burg of Villa Park. Bruce Springsteen's "Pink Cadillac" echoes off brick storefronts, and there are bounce houses and bratwursts and World's Greatest Dads cranking out balloons. The candidate rolls along in her wheelchair, stopping to buy trinkets and posing for pictures with the occasional vet. As dusk settles in, Gaelic tones blast from a sound system. "Trinity Irish Dancers!" Duckworth exclaims, zooming ahead. "I'm short. We're gonna try to get up close to the stage."
Her exhausted handlers hang back as she finds her place near the front amid a sea of squirming kids. Gradually, their attention turns away from the shiny-costumed, bewigged adolescents who are performing and toward the lady in their midst. Some approach to peer at her prosthetics. Don't stare, one parent mouths to her son. I recall one of the workout shirts Duckworth told me she wants to wear in public but thus far hasn't been allowed to by her advisers: "Wanna touch it?"
The wheelchair lady doesn't acknowledge the gawkers; she's busy staring at the kids onstage. All the motion in their dance is below the waist, in the hips, the knees, the ankles. She watches them turn out their toes, flutter their feet, and hop up and down. After several minutes of this Duckworth turns her wheelchair around and rolls out through the crowd, murmuring "excuse me" and "thank you" and "sorry" a dozen times over.
It's not that she makes it all look easy; it's that she keeps doing it. "I'm not so sure I could be such a good sport," her mentor Quigley tells me. And he already is a congressman.
A week after the votes are counted in November, Duckworth will be headed for her alive day gathering in St. Louis. Chief Warrant Officer Milberg already has sent out the invitations to the crew. "I'm proud to be affiliated with a group that epitomizes the military spirit like they do," Milberg says—and none more so than Duckworth, whose politics, he notes, generally don't align with those of her crewmates. "I look at her and I think: 'What have I got to be cryin' about?'"
Perhaps after St. Louis she'll be headed for Washington. "Her heart is in public service," says Durbin, the party's second in command in the Senate. "And when she walks onto that House floor, as a disabled woman veteran, speaking for a lot of Americans who aren't well-enough represented, it will be a spectacular moment."