Clash of opposites in marquee Illinois race

Democrat Tammy  6th congressional district.  The Sixth, a conservative district, has been represented by Republican Henry Hyde since 1974.
Democrat Tammy 6th congressional district.  The Sixth, a conservative district, has been represented by Republican Henry Hyde since 1974.

You could hardly design a more intriguing contrast: man versus woman; a veteran legislator versus a political neophyte; anti-abortion candidate versus abortion rights proponent.

If you live in Chicago’s western suburbs in the Sixth Congressional District you’ll get a chance to choose the winner of this face off. Your choice could decide whether Democrats gain control of the House.

This is a district where President Bush won 53 percent of the vote in 2004.

Now it’s up to veteran state legislator Peter Roskam to keep it a Republican seat in House.

Since 1974, Republican Henry Hyde, best known for his anti-abortion advocacy and his role as Judiciary Committee chairman in impeaching President Clinton in 1998, has represented this district. He’s stepping down at the end of this term.

Hyde has won with average vote of 62 percent in the last four elections.

If Republicans such as Roskam don’t fare well on Nov. 7, it’s curtains for the GOP House majority. (Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats to gain the majority.)

Roskam’s karma is to face the Democratic Party’s premier celebrity House candidate, Major Tammy Duckworth of the Illinois National Guard.

'She’s a war hero for Pete’s sakes'
The subject of positive stories in venues from National Public Radio to Glamour magazine, Duckworth lost both her legs after an rocket-propelled grenade hit her Blackhawk helicopter in the air over Iraq in 2004.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois asked Duckworth to run for Hyde’s open seat, but two other Democrats weren’t willing to step aside, so Duckworth had a competitive primary.

About 32,000 voters took part in the Democratic primary while more than 50,000 voters turned out to cast ballots for Roskam, who ran unopposed in the March 21 GOP primary.

Such data –- and this district’s 30-year affinity for the conservative Hyde -- make this seem a fairly reliable thing for Republicans.

Roskam’s GOP colleague, Carole Pankau, who represents an Illinois state Senate district which is a part of the Sixth Congressional District, characterized the Sixth as “very conservative, fiscally conservative, becoming a little more socially moderate than Henry’s positions have been.”

“Of course!” Pankau said, when asked if Roskam had a tough assignment in battling Duckworth. “She’s a war hero for Pete’s sakes, and she’s female. It has a whole different dynamic to it.”

But she said, “Peter needs to concentrate on the issues and the issues are what is going to win him the race.”

Identifying with Congress
Is the public’s distaste with Congress -- which has been run by the GOP since 1995 -- and its lack of control over federal spending making this a bad time to be running as a Republican?

“I’m glad I’m not an incumbent member of Congress right now,” said Roskam. He said he’d stand by his record in the state legislature “but I’m not going to be accountable for what the Republican Congress has done.”

He declined to identify specific programs he’d try to cut if he got to Congress, but said the voters are demanding spending restraint and said he’ll keep voting ‘no’ on excessive spending bills until the leadership gets the message.

While Duckworth criticizes congressional earmarks –- spending items targeted to benefit one congressional district -– Roskam says sometimes earmarks are necessary to pay for local projects: “I’m unwilling to put aside any legal tool to advocate for this district.”

Roskam argued that the suburb-city tension will work to his benefit “because we have Democrats completely dominating the (Illinois) House, the Senate, the governor’s mansion, and the Supreme Court and all statewide constitutional offices except one, and all the leadership lives within seven or eight miles of one another in the city of Chicago. So suddenly you have folks that say this has really become dominated by one city and one party.”

Celebrity versus the numbers
If in fact the primary election turnout numbers reflected the general electorate, and there are 35 percent fewer Democratic voters than Republicans in this district, then Duckworth will have to exert powerful cross-over appeal.

Introducing herself to Dorry La Spisa, who was having breakfast Wednesday in the Rainbow Diner in Elmhurst with her teenaged daughter, Duckworth began with an advantage: she’s already famous.

La Spisa said, “I’ve seen pictures of her in the newspaper and on TV. I knew her face, I didn’t just look down” — meaning at her artificial legs. Then La Spisa asked a reporter, “Who’s she running against?” and got into a conversation with Duckworth which reflected the reality that some voters don’t distinguish between state and national elections.

“What happened to the state lottery money that was supposed to go to schools?” La Spisa asked Duckworth.

Showing the anti-incumbent mood that seems to be percolating this year, La Spisa complained to Duckworth about Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, who La Spisa  accused of making misleading promises about universal kindergarten for the state’s children.

Then she and Duckworth discussed Iraq.

“I want to bring our people home; I want to do it responsibly; I don’t want to just leave tomorrow because it would turn into a pit of chaos,” Duckworth told her. “But on the other hand, I think the Iraqis have a responsibility to make decisions to stop killing each other.”

Duckworth said one of the bridesmaids at her wedding is now flying helicopters in Iraq. “I want her home,” Duckworth told La Spisa, who voiced sympathy for those who joined the National Guard without thinking they might be ordered to Iraq.

“As a member of the National Guard I was proud to go when my country called and said we needed to be there… I just don’t think the politicians are making as big a sacrifice as the people serving over there,” Duckworth said.

“Definitely not,” agreed La Spisa. When asked for whom she voted in 2004, La Spisa said, “Not Bush.”

From life experience to legislation
Duckworth has a knack for making vivid anecdotes — the events of her life — illustrate the policy points she wants to make.

She says civilians should get the high-quality medical care which she and other wounded soldiers have gotten.

“I think about what would have happened if I lost my legs in a car accident driving on (Interstate) 290 going to work one day. My husband and I would be bankrupt and I would be sitting in a wheelchair. I wouldn’t be up and walking. My artificial leg that I wear on my right-hand side is a brand-new state-of-the-art computerized knee that health insurance will not pay for, because it is considered a luxury.” She said the leg costs about $80,000.

So if elected to Congress, how would she get insurers to pay for such things?

She gave no direct answer, instead argued that billions of dollars could be saved through bulk purchasing of pharmaceuticals, which the Medicare law doesn’t allow.

“Those are the things that I think keep cost of our medicine high --  because we’ve allowed industries to dictate to us,” she said.

So does Duckworth favor government-imposed cost controls on medical and pharmaceutical companies? “I don’t know,” she replied. “My instinct is to say ‘no’ because I’m a firm believer in market forces, but I think there are things we can do to bring in cost savings such as bulk purchasing.”

A dividing issue
Hyde is famous for the Hyde amendment which forbids the Medicaid program for low-income people from paying for abortions for women who can’t afford them.

But Duckworth said she disagrees with Hyde. “I’m a firm supporter of privacy rights and that includes a woman’s right to choose. I don’t think we should penalize poor women for being poor and take away their right to choose.”

Roskam opposes abortion except when necessary to say the life of the mother.

As for the investigations of alleged manipulation of pre-war intelligence that Democratic leaders have promised if they gain a House majority, Duckworth said, “I’m less focused on whether or not the intelligence we got was accurate than I am on trying to bring my friends home.”

And how will she bring them home? “Continue to train up the Iraqi security forces,” she said. “What I sense from people in the Sixth District is they want us to finish well, they don’t want to have an arbitrary date,” Roskam said. “The cost of failure is too high.”