CHICAGO – At a recent campaign event at a nature museum here, Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Tammy Duckworth said she had left her prosthetic right leg at home, because wearing it for long stretches is “very tiring.”
“It’s been a long series of days. It’s going to be a long other series of days, so I will put my right leg on when I need to,” the 48-year-old Iraq veteran said matter-of-factly. Duckworth, who served in the Illinois Army National Guard, lost both legs when a rocket-propelled grenade struck the helicopter she was co-piloting in 2004.
Her Republican rival, incumbent Senator
Mark S. Kirk, faces similar challenges; since his stroke in 2012, he, too, often uses a wheelchair.
At last month’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade here, for instance, he waved to the crowd but never got out of his SUV.
“I used to walk every parade, every step of a parade,” he said evenly. “Now I don’t.”
Running a Senate campaign is a grueling physical and emotional experience. The modern race involves complicated logistics, state-wide travel, a blur of 18-hour days and relentless fund-raising pressures.
And for both Duckworth, a rising Democratic star from the suburbs of Chicago, and Kirk, a longtime Republican lawmaker who’s made his name representing Illinois in the House and then Senate, an extra layer of planning is required.
Overcoming adversity is a central theme in both of their campaigns, and the visibility of their particular daily trials humanizes them for voters. Just like every one of the Illinoisans they’re trying to reach, they struggle every day, too.
A huge effort
In 2010, Kirk, now 56, narrowly won President Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat in a wave year for Republicans. He had been a five-term congressman from a suburban Chicago district that sends moderates to Washington.
He’s more to the right on economic and foreign policy matters and more moderate to liberal on social issues; he
supports abortion rights and tougher gun laws
. He also
made headlines most recently as the first Republican senator — and one of the most politically vulnerable — to call for a vote on the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland.
His stroke four years ago dramatically limited his speech and mobility and kept him away from Washington for a year. He fought his way back through rehabilitation to the Senate floor. He
sometimes uses a wheelchair and cane, and speaks haltingly.
“With all this rehab, for me just to walk was a huge effort. I had to re-learn how to walk again after the stroke. And all the rehab and all the effort shows the mental determination times 10 to keep serving,” he told Roll Call in 2014.
Reality of the trail
As Duckworth recuperated from her injury, she became a well-known advocate for veterans, and also a top recruit by the Democratic Party to run for office. “At the hospital, I realized my new responsibility: to honor the buddies who saved me by serving our military men and women,” she said just before her first winning race. Since getting elected in 2012, her profile has risen steadily, and she is widely expected to beat Kirk in November.
But until election day, one reality of campaigning with a disability is the additional planning and meticulous preparation that must take place.
Duckworth said she and her staff have a pre-event checklist to make sure the site up to their standards — and that means making sure even the bathrooms are wheelchair accessible.
“I don’t go to any place that isn’t accessible even though I have artificial legs that I can walk in; it’s on principle,” she said. “If someone in a wheelchair can’t get in it, I’m not going to do an event there because just because I can get in there doesn’t mean somebody else can.”
Kirk said it definitely takes longer to prepare, especially when traveling.
“You always have to do really proper advance and make sure if there’s a stage [that] the railing is secure,” said his campaign manager, Kevin Artl. “You have to allocate time to arrive.”
‘I earned this wheelchair’
Kirk said he never considered not running again, but he knows some voters question whether he’s still up to serving:
“With a stroke, they wonder how much of you is there” cognitively, Kirk said on the Chicago campaign trail. “With me, I’m all there.”
Former GOP Rep. John Porter of Illinois, who Kirk worked for before eventually winning a seat representing the 10th District, said his former aide
“gets around pretty darn well.”
“His mind is fantastic,” he added.
Duckworth is also a new mom; Abigail, her first child with her husband of 23 years, Army Maj. Bryan Bowlsbey, is 17 months old.
She said she has never hidden her disability or tried to avoid being seen in a wheelchair, despite early questions when she began running for Congress about whether she should be seen in one.
“I’m not ashamed I’m in a wheelchair. I earned this wheelchair,” she said. “I’ve always insisted it’s not something that we hide.”
Kirk’s first major advertisement this cycle chronicled his recovery from the stroke, which included climbing the steps one of the country’s tallest buildings — Willis Tower in Chicago — that he has done on four occasions, most recently in November, to raise funds for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he was a patient.
“I was once a pessimist,” Kirk wrote in early 2013. “I’m not that man anymore. And that change, brought about by misfortune, is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Jon Soltz, chairman of the progressive VoteVets.org, which has put out ads for Duckworth, said he has never heard Duckworth complain about the difficulties she has faced.
“You never go around and hear her say, ‘Gosh, I wish I could get from point A to Point B quicker,’ ” said Soltz, “The only thing you hear her say is, ‘This is my alive day.’ “
One of the top issues in the campaign is national security, and both candidates are veterans, with Kirk having served as an intelligence officer in the Naval Reserve.
Despite their differences — including Duckworth’s support for admitting refugees from Syria and Iraq — each candidate has been respectful of the other’s personal struggles. But this is still Chicago, and the race is still hard-fought, with Duckworth trying to tie Kirk to Donald Trump and Kirk calling her “a naive fool.”
Her disability has been cited by Republicans during the race, but not by Kirk, and perhaps inadvertently. In early March, the National Republican Senatorial Committee
and then deleted a tweet that read: “Tammy Duckworth has a sad record of not standing up for our veterans.”
At Duckworth’s victory celebration, a supporter named Robert Steinberg praised both his candidate and Kirk.
“It shows their intestinal fortitude, both of them,” he said.
Kirk’s campaign manager Artl says that on many occasions Kirk will ask for names when people tell him they have loved ones affected by strokes. He’ll call them to simply to talk, and also to encourage them to follow up on therapy.
“I’ve been calling people who are sick and at home, feeling bad, making sure they know they do not need to despair,” Kirk said.
His resilience is a reason why Jonnie Stewart, a former professional wrestler who ran against him in his first House race in 1999, respects his former opponent turned friend and chatted with Kirk ahead of the parade.
“Mark is the guy who raises the bar in people’s lives,” Stewart said.
Despite the contentious and nature of the Senate race, Kirk says there is one guarantee: “We know no matter what, the next senator from Illinois will be in a wheelchair.”
Clarification, April 12 as of 1:56 p.m.: An earlier version of this story misidentified Kirk’s varied stance on minimum wage increases. While he supported raising the wage in 2007, he did not support an increase in 2014.