Service has shaped Sen. Tammy Duckworth. Is her next post in the White House?

Could another first-term Illinois senator join Joe Biden on the ticket?

July 2, 2020, 3:59 AM

As Tammy Duckworth, the newly minted junior senator from Illinois, returned to her wheelchair after standing to hold her hand on a copy of the Constitution at her swearing-in ceremony in the U.S. Capitol, she told then-Vice President Joe Biden, "it means a lot that you're the one who did this."

For Duckworth, his presence at the January 2017 ceremony was significant because she said that she felt he embodied "survival and resilience" and represented a culmination of service throughout his long career and personal story in the face of adversity.

"Over the years, (Biden) has just shown that he can overcome a lot, and I've overcome a lot. And he gets it. He gets it. He may not have gone through the same traumas that I've gone through, but he's gone through trauma, and he's seen the other side," Duckworth said in an interview with ABC News.

She now finds herself in contention to serve alongside Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. ABC News has learned that the senator is in the process of being vetted for the running mate slot and has interviewed with Biden's vice presidential search committee.

During the remaining weeks of the process, she maintains that she's prepared to serve in any capacity.

"I've made it clear to them that whatever role he wants -- he needs me to do -- I will perform that task," Duckworth said, tipping her hand that she is in talks with the Biden team. "And if that role is to go sweep floors on a U.S. base somewhere ... I'll go do that. We have a lot of challenges in this country and I truly believe that Joe Biden is the right person to help us meet those challenges and overcome them."

PHOTO: Sen. Tammy Duckworth participates in a reenacted swearing-in with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 3, 2017, in Washington.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth participates in a reenacted swearing-in with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 3, 2017, in Washington.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images, FILE

Perhaps no other woman in consideration has as compelling a personal story as Duckworth. After spending a portion of her teenage years on food stamps and nearly homeless, she went on to join the Illinois National Guard, and deploy to Iraq in 2004, where the Blackhawk helicopter she was piloting was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The attack left her near death, but Duckworth was saved by her fellow service members -- some who were also injured. She would wake in Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in what she described as "nonstop, unrelenting, seemingly endless agony." She lost both her legs in the attack and partial use of her right arm -- beginning what she has referred to as her "second life."

A former staffer sung the senator's praises, describing her as "no B.S." and thoughtful when it comes to her work. The former staffer spoke glowingly about her friendly nature amid downtime, including a love of pranks in the office, and showing off photos of her two young daughters -- a reminder that Duckworth is also a working mom.

But it's her military background, according to those close to Duckworth, that would inform her service as Biden's second-in-command.

"If you're looking for someone who's going to be a team player and a loyal ally -- that is what Tammy can do. She's an absolute team player. She's a workhorse, not a show horse and when we got to the Senate, she immediately was like 'OK, I want to be known for my hard work, my legislative and policy accomplishments. Everything else is secondary,'" the same former staffer said.

The lone VP contender with military experience

A recent spotlight on the military has allowed Duckworth to showcase her strengths as an attack dog against President Donald Trump, often appearing as a guest on cable news, and recently giving a pointed and personal speech on the Senate floor following reports that the president was briefed on the intelligence behind reports Russia offered bounties to Taliban militants to kill U.S. troops, but took no action.

"'I didn't know that our adversary was helping kill American troops because no one told me' is not an excuse for the commander in chief of the greatest military on earth. It is in fact a confession of incompetence," Duckworth said of Trump's claims he had not been informed.

Duckworth's military service also gives her a Teflon exterior, allies said, dodging any attacks or nicknames from the president despite giving him one -- "Cadet Bone Spurs," combining the highest military rank he ever received with the ailment that kept him from serving in Vietnam.

"Tammy is the most effective counterpoint to Donald Trump. She would add serious national security credentials to the ticket, speak personally for our military, and confront Donald Trump when he plays the bully. There's a reason Donald Trump has not invented a cheap nickname for Tammy. She's out of his league," Illinois' senior Sen. Dick Durbin, who played a pivotal role in getting Duckworth into politics, told ABC News in a statement.

For Duckworth, understanding what makes Trump tick is a "waste of time."

"I couldn't care less why Donald Trump has not responded to me. He's not worth me wasting time wondering, what motivations go on his mind because I can't even comprehend how someone can have 125,000 dead Americans and be out on the golf course," Duckworth said. "It is so alien to me, to everything that I've done in my life."

Still, when asked if she thought that the attention on the military in the midst of the biggest stories across the country would place a stronger emphasis on a Democratic ticket with military experience, Duckworth diplomatically demurred.

"I think there's a benefit to having someone with military experience," she said. "I don't think that it's a requirement, but I think it will frame an understanding for how to truly use our military to secure our nation's defense and our nation's national security without exploiting the military for political gain."

The challenges she's up against

Duckworth's prospects of landing on the ticket alongside Biden are up against her own record and history, and that of the slate of women also under consideration.

Sources close to Duckworth say the senator doesn't necessarily have aspirations for the White House, but for the woman who initially had her eyes set on the foreign service, a congressional career was not necessarily top of mind, either. For her, they say, it's about answering the call to service. She served two terms in the House, before becoming the junior senator from Illinois -- defeating incumbents twice to earn her seat.

"She's obviously been very effective," Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential scholar at St. Louis University said. "Can she now do that at the national stage as well? And that's the question I think they'll be asking about her, and all the other people that they're looking at."

Still, it remains to be seen if she satisfies a top qualification for Biden -- being able to step into the presidency on day one. That capability is one that is paramount given Biden's age -- he is 77 and would be the oldest president ever elected if he's successful -- and his vice president is largely being seen as a pick for his successor.

As the search for Biden's running mate approaches the early August target date for making a selection, Duckworth has been steadily raising her profile, particularly finding her stride as Trump's actions and the widespread national unrest across the country thrust the role of the military into the national spotlight.

But she also faces some hurdles.

On Tuesday, her hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, criticized her legislative record as "light" -- a swipe at her "few legislative accomplishments" during her tenure in the House, despite making "some headway" in the Senate.

Duckworth, herself, entirely dismissed the charge, defending her efforts in both chambers, including passing a law that requires all major airports to provide nursing moms with private lactation rooms.

"I'm proud of the work that I have done," she said. "I did it always in the minority ... I'm happy to put my legislative record of legislation and amendments that I passed up against anybody's ... every day I wake up and I think, 'what else can I do to help serve my country?'"

Duckworth's lower name ID raises questions about her ability to energize the Democratic base, and her ability to help deliver victories across the battleground states that could ultimately define the outcome of the election. But it could also have some benefits, political experts said.

"From the Biden standpoint -- you've got to invest more in defining her than you would with Elizabeth Warren, ... Kamala Harris ... they're pretty well defined," Dr. Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said in an interview. "Now that also means she doesn't come in with some of the baggage that Harris or Warren might have."

The vice presidential search is occurring largely in secret and against the backdrop of deep national unrest over systemic racism and police brutality -- with some Democrats putting more pressure on Biden to pick an African American woman to signal his commitment to addressing the reckoning on race.

"When you think about any candidate, all of them have strengths and weaknesses," Goldstein said. "And so one of the challenges if to pick Sen. Duckworth is that although she's a person of color, she's not African American and, people who have argued that he ought to pick one of the contenders who's African American, would they be disappointed?"

A woman of many firsts in the Senate: Duckworth was born in Thailand, making her the first Thai American; she is the first female amputee; the first senator to give birth while in office; and to bring her newborn to the Senate floor.

If selected, Duckworth would be the first person of Asian American descent on a presidential ticket -- and if successful, would be the first female vice president, and the first wheelchair user since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to serve in one of the nation's top two offices.

Duckworth also brings with her experience from the Department of Veteran's Affairs at both the state and federal level after she was tapped by disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and President Barack Obama, respectively, for leadership roles in both departments.

PHOTO: Sen. Tammy Duckworth carries her 10-day old daughter Maile Pearl Bowlsbey onto the Senate floor for a vote, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, April 19, 2018.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth carries her 10-day old daughter Maile Pearl Bowlsbey onto the Senate floor for a vote, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, April 19, 2018.
Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA via Shutterstock, FILE

But some of her most prominent drawbacks, experts said, could be her ties to Illinois, known for its "old-style" politics often defined by its history of corruption.

"You'd be committing political malpractice if you didn't try to define her as a corrupt Illinois politician, a protégé of Blagojevich and Obama, if you were the opposition," Redfield said, referencing Blagojevich's 2011 conviction of attempting to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Obama entered the White House in 2008. Trump commuted Blagojevich's sentence earlier this year.

Countering the possible hindrances in her record or her associations is an advantage only she holds.

"She's not an easy target," he said. "She is very relatable. ... Her military (service) and her story, for people that are non-ideological but more conservative, that's gonna be a plus."

Duckworth has proved she's able to handle attacks when they come.

In a 2016 debate during the Senate race in Illinois, Duckworth talked about her family's military service dating back to the Revolutionary War, which prompted former GOP Sen. Mark Kirk to quip, "I forgot your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington."

When Trump stood outside St. John's Episcopal Church for a photo op alongside top military officials, Duckworth penned a scathing op-ed entitled, "It broke my heart to watch two generals walk like lapdogs behind a five-time draft dodger," drawing a call from Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who appeared in the photo with the president, to apologize to her.

She also joined in introducing a bill along with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren -- another potential vice presidential pick -- and several Senate colleagues to remove the names of Confederate figures from military installations.

Some of Duckworth's closest allies view her military background as a boon for her prospects and what she could bring to the ticket.

"As a veteran, she can also win over voters who might otherwise not consider supporting a Democrat. That's what happened in southern Illinois when she ran for Senate in 2016 against an incumbent Republican. In that election, she did well with Trump voters in the reddest downstate Illinois counties," Durbin wrote.

A personal connection to the Biden clan

Beyond Duckworth's compelling background, path into the political sphere and accomplishments as the nation confronts multiple crises, she also has a personal connection to the Biden family.

She introduced Beau Biden, a fellow soldier, at the 2008 Democratic National Convention -- the first of three quadrennial gatherings in which she was part of the speaker lineup.

PHOTO: Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, helicopter pilot and Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth addresses the Democratic National Convention 2008 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Aug. 27, 2008.
Then-Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, helicopter pilot and Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth addresses the Democratic National Convention 2008 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Aug. 27, 2008.
Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Earlier this year, when Duckworth endorsed Biden in March, she did so a few days before Durbin. Since then, she's helped raise $1.6 million for his campaign from a fundraiser she co-hosted, co-authored an op-ed with Biden commemorating Asian American Heritage Month and is set to host a Women for Biden national call on Thursday for the campaign.

Duckworth is also close with Dr. Jill Biden. They worked together throughout the Obama administration, during Duckworth's tenure in the Department of Veterans Affairs and when the former second lady was focusing largely on veterans issues.

"You have served our nation in so many ways ... you inspire so many people across this country, and we are honored to have your support," Biden said earlier this week of Duckworth at a virtual fundraiser celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Without weighing in on the speculation about who should become Biden's running mate, Jill Biden told "Good Morning America" on Tuesday that her husband "wants a relationship like he had with Barack."

"No one knows better than Joe does about the role of the vice president, and they respected one another and at the end of the day, you know Joe was the last one in the room to give his opinion and I think that's what matters -- that they share the same values and they have the same vision about governing our country," she said, adding that she "hopes that he will listen to (her) and get (her) advice."

A value Biden is known for is his empathy -- a value those close to the senator say is one that she shares as well. John Soltz, the founder and chairman of, who has known Duckworth for years, recalled the senator showing up at his mother's funeral unannounced to pay her respects.

"I can't think of anybody who I've dealt with in American politics for such a long time that I trust more, or has more loyalty than Tammy Duckworth," Soltz said.

ABC News' Christopher Donato contributed to this report

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