When the federal government was on the verge of a budget collapse in 2011, alumna Tammy Duckworth became increasingly dissatisfied with her congressman, a vocal proponent of a government shutdown.
She said she never intended to run for elected office, but when Joe Walsh, the Tea Party-endorsed representative leading Illinois’ 8th Congressional District, voiced his opinion in favor of the budget cave, she knew she had to leave a job she loved to take action.
“I was incredibly disappointed that that was my congressman,” Duckworth said. “That night I pledged to do everything that I could to get these extremists out of Washington, especially from my own district.”
Duckworth, a 1992 graduate from the Elliott School of International Affairs’ master’s program, said she came to GW to take the foreign service exam and become a United States ambassador abroad. After years in the Reserve Officer Training Corps and working her way up the ranks, Duckworth won Walsh’s seat this year in one of the election season’s most highly contested races.
The Iraq War veteran and Democrat was pitted against the sharp critic of President Barack Obama. But in the end, the trilingual Bangkok native edged ahead of Walsh – who was running in a newly redrawn district that he claimed took away votes for his party – by more than 20,000 votes.
“I was absolutely thrilled,” Duckworth said when asked about her post-election reaction. “We had worked so hard and, you know, we had so many people who had turned out to support us.”
Throughout her 18-month campaign, she was pegged as a rising star within the Democratic party. She more than doubled Walsh’s campaign donations, raising $4.5 million compared to Walsh’s $1.8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
She also drew attention for the injury she sustained when rockets shot down her Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq, causing her to lose both of her legs in 2004. The Purple Heart awardee commemorates the day of the crash – Nov. 12 – each year with her three other Black Hawk crewmates that survived the explosion.
Duckworth said her military career was born out of the Elliott School, where she met a “diverse group of military men and women” who encouraged her to take ROTC classes.
“Had I not met those folks, I never would have joined the army, or had the most amazing experience of my life serving in uniform,” Duckworth said. She also met her husband, Army Major Bryan Bowlsbey, while attending the school.
She was honored in 2009 by fellow alumnus and former Secretary of State Colin Powell with the inaugural Colin Powell Public Service Award for her duties in the military – an award that is given out annually to alumni active in public service.
After arriving in D.C. for graduate school, she said the city seemed to never stop moving, compared to her old home calmer pace in Hawaii where she lived since she was 16.
“I just remember how cool it was to be there when I first got [to D.C.]. It was so different and it was so urban and I felt so young and alive and hip,” Duckworth said. “Just the whole atmosphere of being in a place where so much is happening all the time is something I will always treasure.”
In 2006, Duckworth ran for her first Congressional seat in Illinois’ 6th District, but lost by almost 5,000 votes.
Duckworth returned to D.C. in 2009, when she was tapped by President Barack Obama to serve as an assistant secretary in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
That same year, she spoke at a veterans’ symposium sponsored by GW in the Marvin Center where she relayed the message of helping military members assimilate after finishing their service overseas, mirroring her duties as assistant secretary.
Walsh was not the only Tea Party-affiliated candidate to struggle this election season. Former Congressman Allen West lost his seat on Florida’s 22nd District, while Michele Bachmann fought a tight race to hold on to her seat representing Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District. Both are Tea Party leaders.
John Sides, a political science professor who watched the election cycle very closely, said that, while the Tea Party has lost some of it’s luster – like with Duckworth’s victory – it would continue to be influential.
“You’ll continue to see robust opposition to the newly reelected President Obama from Tea Party activists and from members of Congress affiliated with the Tea Party,” Sides said.
Out of three alumni running for first-time seats in Congress, Duckworth was the only successful candidate.
Chris Edwards, a 1996 graduate from the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration’s master’s program, and Brad Morris, a 1997 graduate from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences bachelor’s program, both lost their campaigns against their district incumbents.
Duckworth, who is still paying off a “tremendous amount” of student loan debt she incurred while in college, said she would fight to make education more affordable for students once she takes her seat in January.
“I am going to be a big proponent in making sure there are ways that people can afford to go to college without incurring massive amounts of high interest debt,” Duckworth said.