Disabled Vet Runs for Congress in Illinois
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Protesters in cities around the world, London, Washington, Stockholm and Istanbul, voiced their opposition to the war in Iraq, which enters its fourth year this weekend. The war is a major issue in political races in the U.S. Democrats are using a novel strategy in their bid to win control of Congress, encouraging combat veterans to run for office. They're hoping to blunt a longstanding Republican advantage on matters military. The idea may be a practical one, but it's caused controversy and resentment in the Sixth District of Illinois. In Tuesday's primary, the strategy is put to the test.
NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY reporting:
The Congressional district in Illinois that Henry Hyde is vacating after more than three decades has never elected a Democrat. But with Hyde leaving and demographic changes in the area, just northwest of Chicago, Democrats think this may finally be their moment. Three Democrats are running in Tuesday's primary, but national party leaders have pinned their hopes on one, 38-year-old Army Major Tammy Duckworth. A helicopter pilot, she lost both her legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq.
Major TAMMY DUCKWORTH (Democrat, Congressional Candidate): Hi. I'm Tammy Duckworth, I'm running for Congress.
CORLEY: It's a chilly, windy day and Duckworth sits in a wheelchair, campaigning outside a restaurant.
Maj. DUCKWORTH: Oh, cool boots! Those are awesome.
CORLEY: Duckworth's shoes, a pair of black slip-ons, cover most of her prosthetic feet.
Maj. DUCKWORTH: It's terrible. Even though I lost my legs, I'm still a shoe person.
CORLEY: Duckworth is quick with a smile and self-deprecating humor. But says her campaign is serious. She says it was wrong to go into Iraq, but she doesn't believe the U.S. should set a timetable to withdraw.
Maj. DUCKWORTH: I want to bring our troops home. But I also want to bring our troops home so that their sacrifices mean something. And the way we do that is we make sure we leave Iraq with a security force that is capable of maintaining their own security. So my proposal is that we do a much better job, and be much more aggressive about training up the Iraqi security forces, so that they can do their job.
CORLEY: Duckworth says her campaign is about more than Iraq. She cites healthcare, education and the budget. And while the party leaders who urged her to run agree that war veterans candidates have to address other issues, they believe their military experiences help show no party has the edge on national security. But not everyone thinks this warrior strategy is a good or fair idea. Some in the Sixth Congressional District say Duckworth is not only a carpetbagger, her home is a few blocks out of the district line, but she's a latecomer to the political scene who hasn't earned the right to the nomination.
Mr. DICK NOUGET(ph) (Sixth District Resident): Folks, this is a defining moment for us.
(Soundbite of cheering people)
CORLEY: Dick Nouget revved up the crowd at a recent fundraiser for Christine Cegelis, a software consultant who's making her second run for the seat. She won 44 percent of the vote two years ago in a race against Henry Hyde. Nouget has lived in the district for nearly 50 years and says Cegelis represents all the ideals that the Democratic Party should. He is angry that national leaders turned their backs on her.
Mr. NOUGET: It's shameful. It's disgraceful. It was done without proper thought and without input from the grassroots people. They fully underestimated the fact that today grassroots progressive Democrats are out in force.
CORLEY: The Christine Cegelis campaign put a scare in Republicans in what was Hyde's closest race since he was first elected in 1974; Cegelis appealed to grassroots supporters then. But her task is complicated this time because she has to take on her own party's leaders, many of whom have poured their money and influence into the Duckworth campaign. Cegelis says that what separates her from Duckworth is that she always has had a tough anti-war stance.
Ms. CHRISTINE CEGELIS (Democrat, Congressional Candidate): We need to say when we're going to be out. And we need to let the Iraqi people, especially the Iraqi people, and the international community, know that we are not an occupying force in Iraq.
CORLEY: The strong showing against Henry Hyde in the 2004 race gave Democrats a reason to dream of success this year. And so has a recent increase in Latino voters and immigrants to the district. The third Democrat in the race, Lindy Scott, says that change, along with some other demographic, a strong Catholic and evangelical presence, makes his candidacy viable. Scott, a professor at Wheaton College, is anti-abortion. But one thing he and Cegelis agree on is that Democratic bosses should not decide who the nominee is.
Professor LINDY SCOTT (Democrat, Congressional Candidate): People in the suburbs don't like people from the Chicago machine, or from anywhere, telling them who they should vote for.
CORLEY: Whoever wins the Democratic primary will face Republican State Senator Peter Roskam, who has no primary challenger. With national attention on Duckworth's candidacy, his task is to win in November and continue the district's tradition of never electing a Democrat to Congress.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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