CHICAGO >> Making a final pitch to keep his U.S. Senate seat, Republican Mark Kirk kicked off a debate with Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth by again apologizing for mocking her immigrant background and her family’s military service. He later added “I am absolutely not a racist.”
Duckworth, a McKinley High School and University of Hawaii graduate, entered Friday night’s debate at ABC7 in Chicago as the favorite in a contest that will help determine if Democrats retake control of the Senate. Illinois has historically favored Democrats for statewide office, especially in presidential election years, and Duckworth has a healthy lead in the polls.
Kirk and Duckworth also tangled over issues like immigration. And the candidates, who are both disabled, assured voters that they’re capable of serving as Illinois’ next U.S. senator.
Here’s a look at some of their exchanges:
HE SAID WHAT?
Kirk used his opening remarks to try to repair some of the damage from last week’s debate.
Duckworth, who was born in Thailand to a Chinese-Thai mother and American father, said during a face-off in Springfield that her family served in the U.S. military dating back to the Revolution. Kirk responded that he’d forgotten the congresswoman’s “parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.”
The comment made Kirk a target of social media scorn and lost two endorsements from organizations who called his remarks racist.
Kirk apologized the next day via Twitter, and Duckworth accepted his apology.
On Friday he thanked her for doing so, adding “you are to be honored” for her service.
He later said that he wasn’t thinking when he made the comment, which he called a “mistake.”
“Sometimes I’ve been too quick to turn a phrase,” he said.
Kirk suffered a stroke in 2012, returning to work one year later after a yearlong rehabilitation in which he had to relearn how to walk and talk. Duckworth lost both legs when the helicopter she was co-piloting was shot down in the Iraq War.
Asked if they’re healthy enough to serve, both candidates said yes.
Kirk has faced the most questions about his health. The typically conservative Chicago Tribune editorial board endorsed Duckworth, saying they didn’t think Kirk could fully serve because of his stroke.
Kirk noted Friday that his physician released a letter saying he made a full cognitive recovery. He said he’s set to climb the stairs of the Willis Tower on Sunday.
Duckworth said she also thinks Kirk is capable of doing the job, adding “the problem is he’s not doing it.”
Duckworth said she completed the Chicago marathon in her wheelchair last month. She released full medical records showing she has no major health problems and she said Kirk should do the same.
Duckworth and Kirk also sparred over their records on immigration, a back-and-forth that included Kirk speaking at times in Spanish.
Kirk noted he broke with most of his party to vote in favor of comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship for people in the U.S. illegally. Switching between Spanish and English, he nodded toward Duckworth at one point and said “she does not speak Spanish.”
Duckworth said Kirk has been inconsistent on the issue and that, as the daughter of an immigrant, she knows how important immigration reform is.
“We need to get to work on this,” she said.
At a post-debate news conference, Duckworth busted out some language skills of her own, speaking in Thai while answering a question posed by a reporter from Thailand.
The debate was presented in conjunction with the Spanish-language station Univision Chicago and the League of Women Voters of Illinois.
Kirk worked throughout the debate to persuade voters in the left-leaning state that he’s independent of the GOP, noting he supports abortion rights and gun control. He also blasted Duckworth as ineffective.
Duckworth noted Kirk’s penchant for controversial comments. They’ve included calling an unmarried senator a “bro with no ho.”
She said she wants to go to Washington to fight for working and middle-class families.