On Jan. 3, 2013, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk stomped his right foot on a sandstone step of the U.S. Capitol. To hearty applause and the flutter of cameras, Kirk leaned on Vice President Joe Biden and Kirk's best friend, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and made his way up the steps. It was his comeback moment.
"Welcome back, man!" Biden said.
"Let's go to work, you guys," Kirk told his colleagues who lined the steps.
A year earlier, Kirk had suffered a stroke that sidelined him. Other than a few videos from his aides showing him battling through intense physical therapy, the public didn't see much of him. His stroke was ischemic, caused by a blocked artery in his neck. He went to the hospital complaining of a headache, numbness in his limbs and impaired vision. He required a craniotomy to relieve pressure on his brain. After a year of rehab, he returned to Washington, D.C.
Kirk's emotional climb up the Capitol steps left us sincerely hopeful his recovery was full enough to return him to the Senate as the independent, confident, outspoken and focused leader we had endorsed for general election six times.
We are saddened to say we did not see that energetic, policy-driven Kirk when we met with him Oct. 3 for an endorsement interview. You'll find the video of that meeting here: chicagotribune.com/senatedebate. Additional reporting confirmed that the senator isn't as influential an advocate in Washington as he was for more than a decade.
While a stroke by no means disqualifies anyone from public office, we cannot tiptoe around the issue of Kirk's recovery and readiness. His health is a fundamental component of this race - a hotly contested matchup that could return control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats.
We aren't physicians; Kirk's doctor attests to his good cognitive health.
But we are voters. And our reluctant judgment is that, due to forces beyond his control, Kirk no longer can perform to the fullest the job of a U.S. senator. We are unable to endorse him for another six-year term.
U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a Hoffman Estates Democrat, is challenging Kirk. Today we recommend Duckworth for the job.
Kirk was elected to the Senate in 2010 after representing the North Shore for 10 years in the House. His positions mirror those of mainstream Illinois voters and, frankly, of this editorial page. He's a socially moderate, fiscally conservative Republican. He supports policies that would reduce the national debt, curb deficit spending and downsize government. On issues of gun access, he votes against his party to support federal background checks and screening measures for gun buyers. He has supported gay marriage. He criticized GOP leaders when they refused to hold hearings on Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's U.S. Supreme Court nominee.
But being a U.S. senator is more than casting votes and issuing staff-prepared statements. We've become concerned about Kirk's ability to fulfill the multifaceted role. That includes traveling extensively, frequently addressing citizens, building alliances with opposition lawmakers and forcefully lobbying Senate colleagues for their support of legislation. Our apprehension was reinforced by several sources who spoke confidentially about what they, too, have observed. And we'll say up front: Not everyone agreed. Like many people who've experienced dramatic health events, Kirk has good days and bad days.
We also have our interaction with him in the Tribune's editorial board room, where Kirk was a frequent guest before the 2012 stroke. And in that room on Oct. 3, it was clear which candidate demonstrated stronger leadership capabilities.
Duckworth first ran for Congress in 2006, losing to U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam. She worked on veterans issues in state and federal government before running again in 2012, beating now-talk show host Joe Walsh. She's finishing her second term.
Duckworth initially campaigned as a doctrinaire Democrat but at times has bucked her party. Last year she voted for a GOP-led bill that would make it easier to fire U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs employees who commit misconduct. That was in response to a 2014 scandal in which veterans were dying while waiting for care. Many Democrats, heavily lobbied by organized labor, called the measure anti-worker. But Duckworth helped pass the bill alongside Republicans.
She also has voted for military budgets that the Obama administration lobbied against. And she has criticized wasteful defense spending, from embarrassing cost overruns of the F-35 fighter jet program to indulgent steak and lobster dinners for military personnel. She introduced legislation to curb fraud in a contracting program reserved for disabled veterans. She famously excoriated a beneficiary of the system who qualified for a contract by claiming an injury to his ankle that he had suffered during military prep school.
As a veteran of combat in Iraq, Duckworth offers a unique perspective on military spending, preparedness and troop deployment. She opposed the Obama administration's strategy to arm Syrian rebels. She said she would not support overseas deployments of American troops without a long-term plan and exit strategy. She voted for the Iranian nuclear deal, which Kirk opposed. She is the only Illinois member of the House Armed Services Committee.
We endorse Duckworth with the expectation that she stay focused on cost cutting as the nation navigates a debt crisis that much of official Washington recklessly ignores. We endorse her with the expectation she will challenge her party's leaders. We endorse her with the realization that Illinois already has one fierce Democratic loyalist in the Senate, Dick Durbin. If she's elected, it will be Duckworth's job to also represent the many Republican and independent Illinoisans who won't have voted for her but who deserve a voice.
Duckworth has the chops for nonconformity. She trained as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot because that was one of the only options for women in the military who wanted to engage in combat. On Nov. 12, 2004, a rocket-propelled grenade tore through the cockpit of the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting. She lost her legs and nearly lost an arm. Her comrades dragged her, unconscious and bleeding, to safety. She deals daily with the legacy of her injuries.
That's what is remarkable, and sobering, about this race: Both candidates experienced traumatic injuries. Each faced a journey of devastation and hope, failure and success, frustration and redemption. Their recoveries speak to their profound tenacity, humility and grace.
But in this race, at this moment, one of them is better prepared to fulfill the motley demands of U.S. senator. That person is Tammy Duckworth.
You'll find all Tribune endorsements to date, as well as the candidates' responses to our questionnaires, at chicagotribune.com/candidates.Join the discussion on Twitter @Trib_Ed_Board and on Facebook.