Sen. Mark Kirk went on the offense against Democratic challenger Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth in a televised Downstate debate Thursday night — accusing her of lying, spreading “blabber” about the refugee crisis and questioning her claim of being a “Daughter of the American Revolution.”
“My family has served this nation in uniform, going back to the Revolution. I’m a daughter of the Revolution. I’ve bled for this nation,” Duckworth said at the University of Illinois Springfield debate, in response to a question about America’s role in the Middle East.
“I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington,” Kirk replied to Duckworth.
The audience was silent, and Duckworth initially laughed when one of the media panelists asked if she wanted to respond.
“There’s been members of my family serving in uniform on my father’s side going back to the Revolution,” Duckworth said. “I’m proud of both my father’s side and my mother, who’s an immigrant. She became a citizen in her 50s. And I’m just as proud of that.”
Duckworth was born in Thailand to a mother of Chinese heritage and a father of British descent.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was quick to respond to Kirk’s comment, calling it “offensive, wrong and racist” while demanding an apology to Duckworth.
Kirk’s campaign issued its own follow-up statement, calling Duckworth a “war hero,” while continuing to criticize her on other issues.
“Senator Kirk has consistently called Rep. Duckworth a war hero and honors her family’s service to this country,” spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis said.
Kirk, who has apologized over embellishing his own military past, called those past misstatements “small and selfish” when asked about them Thursday night.
He tried to shift the focus to Duckworth, for her time as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, calling her record there “questionable,” while mentioning a workplace discrimination lawsuit.
Kirk invited the “whistleblower” plaintiffs to the debate, where they were seated in the front row. He appeared with the women in a news conference earlier Thursday. The Illinois Attorney General’s office is representing Duckworth and say there’s a settlement reached, although it’s not yet completed. Kirk has used the lawsuit in ads.
“These whistleblowers should be commended and applauded and not crushed,” Kirk said.
As Duckworth responded about the suit, she said it had been thrown out twice. The current suit is the third attempt to get it to trial.
“Actually it’s important that Tammy not to lie to the people. The lawsuit has not been thrown out,” Kirk interjected. As Duckworth again tried to respond, Kirk said, “Sorry when you’re lying, you don’t get any time.”
Kirk also accused Duckworth of telling “blabber” in response to a question about the Syrian refugee crisis.
“There is a big difference between Congresswoman Duckworth and I on the refugee issue, the Syrian refugees. … Congresswoman Duckworth is going to tell you some blabber about how the Administration got on top of their guys and said you’ve got to say that there is vetting there, when even these brave, good servants of the president have said there is no database to check against the Syrian refugees,” Kirk said.
Kirk’s recovery from a stroke has been a key focal point in the campaign, as he’s been tasked with proving he’s still fit to serve in the U.S. Senate. Kirk has addressed that in TV ads, which show his vast medical advances. His campaign in September also released a one-page letter from his neurosurgeon which read that he had made a “full cognitive recovery.”
But comments he’s made have raised eyebrows, including likening President Barack Obama to a “drug dealer in chief” over a $400 million payment to Iran linked to the release of American prisoners.
Kirk defended his health Thursday night, saying it shows his resilience.
“I would say that the stroke has made me much stronger as a senator. When you conquer something as difficult as a stroke, you get in there, you’re going to fight, fight, fight to make sure you deliver for the people of Illinois,” Kirk said on Thursday.
Duckworth said Kirk is “perfectly capable of doing his job.” Then she was interrupted by Kirk.
Both candidates have overcome great physical challenges — Kirk with the stroke he suffered in 2012, and Duckworth lost both legs and shattered her right arm in the Illinois National Guard when her Blackhawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq in 2004.
“I would say that we both agree on one key point. We both think the next senator from Illinois should use a wheelchair,” Kirk said to laughs.
There were several digs aimed at Duckworth, as Kirk tried to link his opponent to her one-time boss as she served as the director of the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs, imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich: “We got to make sure we elect honest people … not like Rod, your old boss.”
When asked who’s better suited to be president, Duckworth talked of the importance of working together with whoever wins. She said the country must put aside partisanship and anger for the greater good. And in perhaps an effort to not alienate Downstate voters, Duckworth stressed that both presidential candidates love the country: “And remember that, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump truly do love America.”
Instead of touting that he was one of the first high-ranking Republicans to denounce Trump’s presidency, Kirk responded that he served as the “glue” between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, and said he feared Duckworth’s “partisan” ways would mean a war for her and Republicans.
Duckworth and Kirk will face off again on Nov. 4 in an ABC-7 Chicago and Univision debate in Chicago.