Sen. Tammy Duckworth is on the shortlist to be Joe Biden’s running mate, so I asked her when she first met the ex-vice president.
“I probably met Joe Biden right after I met you, Lynn, the State of the Union night,” said Duckworth.
On that evening — Feb. 2, 2005 — she was in the Capitol for President George W. Bush’s speech as the guest of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. He wanted to give his tickets for the address to Illinois vets recovering from war wounds at the old Walter Reed military hospital.
Duckworth impressed Durbin as the Illinois Army National Guard officer talked to a reporter about the Iraq war, where, just weeks earlier she lost both legs and the use of an arm when her helicopter was shot down on Nov. 12, 2004.
She told me that after that, Durbin took her to a pre-speech gathering of Democratic senators with Biden, then the veteran Delaware senator, and freshman Barack Obama, who was just wrapping up his first month as the junior senator from Illinois.
Durbin recruited Duckworth to run for a House seat from the Chicago suburbs in 2006. She lost the race but never Durbin’s role as a career mentor.
To make a long story short: Duckworth was sworn into the Senate on Jan. 3, 2017 by then-President Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden.
For months now, Duckworth, from Hoffman Estates, has been going through intense vetting by Biden’s team.
At the same time, as speculation grows about her VP prospects, Duckworth has been raising her profile by accepting more bookings on shows and podcasts. Part of that is related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Doing hits from a dining room table takes far less time than going to a studio, even if one of her daughters climbs into the picture.
Duckworth, 52, is the first senator to give birth while in office. She is home schooling her eldest during the coronavirus shutdown, juggling that with her senate duties and vetting chores. Maile was born on April 9, 2018; Abigail on Nov. 18, 2014. Husband Bryan Bowlsbey works for an information technology firm.
Biden, nearing a decision, is focusing the most on several other women, all African American, according to several sources and news reports.
A long shot on the shortlist, Duckworth remains a contender.
She shares with Biden a non-privileged non-elite upbringing and a hardscrabble life. As a youth, her family was once on food stamps. She is an everywoman who won support from crossover Trump voters in her 2016 Senate race.
She “has one of the most extraordinary stories in politics,” said longtime political strategist and Obama adviser David Axelrod. “Obviously it’s a heroic story, but it’s also an incredible story of resilience and perseverance, of patriotism and about empathy. It’s the stuff of movies, it’s the stuff of novels, her life story, and there are not too many people like that around.”
Duckworth has an advantage in that she actually has known Biden and his wife, Jill, for years. The relationship revolved around their mutual interests in veterans affairs.
Shortly after Duckworth’s 2006 election loss, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, looking to clean up his own already tarnished image with a blue chip appointment, tapped her to be director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.
In 2008 Duckworth introduced Biden’s late son, Beau — a member of the Delaware National Guard — at the Democratic National Convention. She became an assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs in the Obama administration, where she crossed paths with Biden on various veteran issues.
Duckworth got to know Jill Biden when they tackled homeless vet issues at the VA. Later, after Duckworth, on her second try, won a suburban Chicago House seat in 2012, they successfully worked on legislation to protect vets from predatory lending practices,
Jill Normington, Duckworth’s pollster for 15 years, told me her research shows that voters — even those who on the surface don’t have anything in common with Duckworth — “believe her when she talks. They find her to be warm and they conclude that she will make choices that end up putting working people first.
“... For people who know her a little bit, or people who don’t know her at all, she always ends up making a good first impression.”
As Biden closes in on a pick, Duckworth has people with deep connections into the Biden world rooting for her: in addition to some veterans groups, Durbin, Gov. J.B. Pritzker plus Bill Brandt and John Atkinson, major donors and fundraisers for Duckworth and Biden.
Pritzker, in Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast, said he promoted Duckworth in a conversation with Biden, touting her as a war hero who can confront President Donald Trump.
Pritzker political adviser Quentin Fulks told me that conversation took place July 7, two days before a virtual fundraiser Pritzker and Obama were co-hosting for Biden.
Brandt, with Duckworth since her first race in 2006 — a former finance chair now an adviser and friend — said, “I have certainly talked her up and I have helped with the Biden campaign from the standpoint of Tammy’s interests.”
Atkinson, current chair of Duckworth’s finance committee, said Biden “knows Tammy very well, and I’m confident he sees her as ready on day one.” She also is “kryptonite to Trump,” in a “unique position” to call him out.
Curiously, Trump has refrained, so far, from giving Duckworth an insulting nickname.
Someone familiar with the vetting process said while Duckworth checks many boxes, her birth in Thailand makes some skittish about the potential of Trump trying to whip up his base with a groundless birtherism debate.
Duckworth’s father, who is white, was in Thailand on a non-military U.S. government job when she was born. Her mother is Thai of Chinese descent.
I asked Duckworth who she was closest to in the Senate and her answer helps pinpoint her on the political spectrum.
“There’s this moderate Dems table” at the Democratic Senate lunches, she said, and she sits mostly with Sherrod Brown of Ohio; Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin; and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
Last week, Duckworth was named a “permanent co-chair” of the upcoming Democratic virtual presidential convention, with those duties likely mainly symbolic.
She doesn’t offer much when asked about her vetting status and meetings with Biden, of which she has had at least one.
Said Duckworth, “I’m just going to keep doing my job, Lynn, and I’ll let the process move along on its own schedule, whatever schedule they may have.”