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Quiet Jockeying Already Underway for Potential Duckworth Departure

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth is getting more attention than a prom queen during the dance. This summer, she was rumored to be on the shortlist of vice-presidential running mates for President-Elect Joe Biden. Now that he’s headed to the White House, Duckworth’s name is coming up again, this time for potential cabinet appointments.

“She has a phenomenal personal story. She’s a genuinely good person. She obviously distinguished herself in the service and so it’s absolutely possible that winds up happening,” said a longtime Illinois Democratic operative who spoke to the Illinoize on background. “Tammy could easily be appointed. It would not surprise anybody I know because of the political logic of it.”

Duckworth’s military heroism while serving in Iraq is well documented. She’s also one of only three Asian-Americans serving in the Senate (soon to be two with Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris leaving the chamber). The same reasons Duckworth was on the VP shortlist would make her an appealing choice for a potential cabinet position.

Potential cabinet appointments for Duckworth include the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. She led the Illinois Department of Veteran’s Affairs from 2006-2009 and was an Assistant Secretary of the federal VA from 2009-2011. She was elected to Congress in 2012 and to the Senate in 2016.

Duckworth hasn’t been offered anything yet, but if she were to leave the Senate plenty of Illinois

Democrats would be angling to slide in before her seat cools off.

“Clearly you’ve got to figure out who is a person of color or a woman who is right for that kind of a position,” the operative said. “I hate to get into the whole identity politics thing but we’re Democrats and we want to increase representation and we want to increase diversity.”

Two of the most popular names making waves in Democratic circles are Comptroller Susana Mendoza and Attorney General Kwame Raoul. Both would also offer a “twofer” situation where Governor JB Pritzker could appoint someone to the Senate and then appoint a second person to the statewide office they’d be leaving.

“I would expect that it’s going to be somebody that if you end up with a twofer, one of the positions goes to an African American and maybe one goes to a Latino,” the operative said.

Other names being floated include deputy governors Jesse Ruiz and Sol Florez. A longshot name being discussed is Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx but sources “don’t see that happening.”

Mendoza would be a logical pick “identity politics” aside. Her run for mayor of Chicago may have underwhelmed, but she’s successfully run statewide for comptroller and has experience as a state representative and Chicago City Clerk.

Same for Raoul, who was appointed to Barack Obama’s State Senate seat after he went to Washington in 2005. Raoul, who is of Haitian descent, subsequently won several terms on his own before running statewide for attorney general in 2018.

Ruiz may not be as well-known but has served in a variety of roles from leading the Illinois State Board of Education, Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners and Chicago Public Schools. Flores founded a multi-million dollar non-profit to help the homeless before entering politics. Now she oversees 15,000 employees and $35 billion in state funding for various health and human services agencies.

Considering there are only 26 women in the Senate and 8 Latinos, Asians and Black people combined, the likelihood of another white man heading to the Senate with this appointment is a longshot.

“The chances of a white male getting appointed as a replacement for Tammy Duckworth are about as high as Bruce Rauner coming in and getting elected pope,” the Democratic strategist joked about the former Governor. “A lot of people on the right will say, ‘ah it’s just a bunch of crap, identity politics nonsense, blah blah blah’ and what I learned a long, long time ago in my career is diversity of thought improves outcomes and diversity of representation of the people at the table improves outcomes. The idea of what the right calls ‘virtue signaling’ is a lot of, what Joe Biden might say, ‘malarkey.’ It’s not about virtue signaling. It’s about actually producing better outcomes and a more representative body. A representative body that’s actually, oh I don’t know, representative.”

The elephant, or Democratic donkey, in the room is what happened the last time an Illinois governor filled a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. What landed former Governor Rod Blagojevich’s in handcuffs and facing federal charges was his effort to extract political concessions in exchange for President Obama’s seat.

“My gut is (Pritzker will) try to have a process that’s transparent, no secrets because he’s going to want to be as far removed as the specter of what happened with Rod (Blagojevich) as humanly possible,” the operative said. “The parallels are controlling. They’re not obvious, they’re controlling.”

Many Illinois Democrats don’t suspect Duckworth would be in line for a top cabinet appointment like Secretary of Defense so any appointment would likely come after the most coveted jobs are figured out. That buys contenders for her seat time to strategize, but the optics of ambition can be a delicate dance.

“If anybody is jockeying and trying to position themselves with the governor right now, I would offer them one piece of advice: be very careful, because the governor is focused on keeping people alive,” the Democrat operative said. “The Governor is focused on an out-of-control pandemic that threatens to destroy lives and our economy. It will not go over well if your ambition is so naked that it’s seen as the only thing you care about.”

But just because it’s potentially perilous ground to trod doesn’t mean people are stepping out onto it.

“Does that mean there are not conversations taking place, of course there are people who are reaching out to friends of the governor or reaching out to advisers of the governor,” the strategist said. “I guarantee that’s happening.”

If there’s an opening in the Senate, the appointee would serve through the 2022 election.