Kirk and Duckworth face off at UIS


Photographs courtesy of Erica Thomas

Tammy Duckworth and Mark Kirk debate in the UIS Sangamon Auditorium.

Jeff Burnett, Staff Writer

Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and Democratic challenger Rep. Tammy Duckworth faced off in the first televised debate in a heated senatorial race on Oct. 27.

UIS hosted the second of three debates in the Sangamon Auditorium with WICS News Channel 20, The State Journal-Register, and News/Talk 94.7 & 970 WMAY sponsoring the event.

Adam Rife moderated the debate with Jordan Abudayyeh, Jim Leach, and Bernard Schoenburg as panelists.

The candidates tackled topics from the current presidential race, Kirk’s health issues in office, a pending lawsuit against Duckworth, U.S. foreign policy with ISIS and Syrian refugees, transgender rights in the U.S., the Affordable Care Act, and Supreme Court nominations.

“I think many good issues were brought up during the debate, and each candidate did a good job of making their stances clear for the audience,” said Patrick Simon, a member of UIS College Republicans. “Overall, unlike the recent presidential debates, I think there was a deep discussion of the issues that really helped voters.”

It did not take long for the friendliness to dissipate with antagonistic comments similar to the candidates’ aggressive campaign commercials. Kirk even made national headlines after a comments about Duckworth’s heritage.

“[Kirk] didn’t have any engagement with the audience at all,” Keith Williams, chief of staff for the College Democrats, said.

When discussing U.S. foreign policy, Duckworth referenced her military record and that her family had “served this nation in uniform going back to the Revolution.”

In the 30 seconds given to Kirk to respond he said, “I forgot that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.”

Duckworth’s mother is of Thai and Chinese heritage; however, her late father was an American-born citizen.

After the debate, both the Duckworth campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) immediately responded to his comments.

“Senator Mark Kirk’s attack on Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth’s family tonight was offensive, wrong, and racist,” DSCC spokeswoman Lara Sisselman said in a statement.

The Kirk campaign did not apologize immediately, but later issued a statement on Oct. 28.

“Sincere apologies to an American hero, Tammy Duckworth, and gratitude for her family’s service,” Kirk wrote on Twitter.

Duckworth later accepted his apology on Twitter.

During the debate, Kirk also touted his Human Rights Campaign (HRC) voting record and endorsement. However on Oct. 29 the HRC pulled back its endorsement for the first time in the organization’s history.

The HRC is the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group in the country.

“The diversity of our movement is our greatest strength, and Senator Kirk’s remarks were an affront to our most fundamental values. We have therefore voted to endorse Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth,” Chad Griffin, president of HRC, wrote in an open letter.

Other organizations, including the gun violence prevention political action committee founded by former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, have also pulled their endorsements of Kirk for Senate.

“The comments made by the senator have been used as a distraction from the real issues of this election,” said Simon.

Both candidates talked about their military experience, supporting veterans, personal issues, and their political records of how they have helped the people of Illinois.

Kirk cited his record for helping veterans while in office, but also mentioned that he “laid the groundwork for some of the best environmental work” and asked “that the people send me back” to the senate.

Duckworth stressed the importance of education and that “I see college students that don’t know how they’re going to afford college,” and that she would “fight for hardworking Illinoisans” if elected to the seat.

“She did an excellent job. I feel like she was very prepared; her opponent was not prepared at all,” said Williams.

Kirk’s health record came up as one of the topics, questioning whether he is still fit to hold office.

In 2012, Kirk suffered a stroke, undergoing months of rehabilitation before returning to the Senate. He said that the “stroke has made me much stronger as a senator.”

Kirk joked about how “both senators should use a wheelchair” (both Kirk and Duckworth use wheelchairs for mobility assistance).

Halfway through the debate, UIS students got a chance to ask the candidates questions.

Nathan Hoffman, UIS student trustee, asked both candidates, “How best can the federal government work with families and students to make pursuing a postsecondary education, such as a four-year university, community college, or technical training school, more affordable?”

Kirk responded, “This is a key difference between me and my opponent. My opponent, her primary spending plan is to offer free stuff, like free college.”

Kirk said Duckworth’s plan would cost $60 billion dollars.

Duckworth said, “I think we leave people behind and we leave our nation behind if we don’t invest in college.”

“The college loan debt discussion would have been most beneficial,” said Simon. “However I don’t think either candidate went into enough detail about what they believe is the solution to debt problem.”

Duckworth stressed that she was working toward free college by “closing tax loopholes” and taxing companies that ship jobs overseas.

Williams said that the “aspect of making sure our jobs staying here” was an important part of the debate and that Duckworth would “make sure that [U.S. companies] put American workers first.”

On Oct. 4, The Simon Poll/Southern Illinois University had Kirk trailing Duckworth by 14.4 points.