PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday September 23rd, 2014, 6:40pm

A Closer Look At The 8th Congressional District Race

Progress Illinois takes a look at the 8th congressional district race that pits incumbent Democrat Tammy Duckworth against Republican challenger Larry Kaifesh.

The election battle in Illinois' 8th congressional district got a bit heated on Monday.

At a joint appearance yesterday before the Chicago Tribune editorial board, the Republican candidate vying for the 8th congressional district seat pounced on incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth over the problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that have recently come to light.

GOP candidate Larry Kaifesh of Carpentersville, a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, attempted to connect Duckworth to the VA scandal, which exposed long waits for veterans seeking doctor appointments and cover ups by department officials who tried to mask the problem.

Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran who is running for her second term in the north suburban 8th congressional district, served as Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the VA from 2009 to 2011. Duckworth, who lost both legs during a tour in Iraq, is also former director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. 

"These issues didn't just come up overnight. These have been there for a long time," Kaifesh told the newspaper's editorial board. "I am concerned that Rep. Duckworth was in the middle of it. And the leadership of the VA in Illinois and at the national level did not identify any problems, didn't address any problems."

Duckworth responded, "I was not in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, and wherever I saw problems, I certainly brought those forward."

Wendy Warden, who previously headed up the Eighth District Democrats and Independents group before the organization disbanded after political boundaries were redrawn in 2011, has been tracking the race between Duckworth and Kaifesh.

"We can look at Congresswoman Duckworth's record at every level that she has been involved with the VA system, whether as a veteran or as an appointed official or as an elected official, ... and if you spent any time with Congresswoman Duckworth, you know that she speaks her mind," Warden told Progress Illinois. "She will call people on the carpet for wrongdoing, for unethical behavior, and she has done that."

In addition to veterans issues, the federal budget and the fight against ISIL were among the topics discussed Monday by the candidates running in the 8th congressional district, which covers parts of Cook, DuPage and Kane counties. 

Kaifesh, a first-time political candidate who was a featured speaker earlier this year at the Illinois "Tax Day" Tea Party rally in St. Charles, said he would work to minimize the national debt if elected, telling the Tribune editorial board that he would push to slash the federal budget by 10 percent across the board, including cuts to the defense department.

Duckworth, who has co-sponsored several pieces of federal legislation to cut government waste and fraud, took issue with Kaifesh's budget-reduction approach. She said cuts across the board could make it harder for local governments to provide necessary services, and they might have to hike property taxes to make up the lost revenue.

"Congresswoman Duckworth believes that a 10 percent across-the-board cut to all federal programs is irresponsible," Duckworth's campaign manager Paul Kohnstamm said in a follow-up statement to Progress Illinois. "During the sequester last year, there was an 8.3 percent indiscriminate cut, and her constituents in the 8th district suffered. Schools were faced with cutting special education programs and teachers, forcing class sizes to grow. Additionally, many local governments considered raising property taxes to cover the difference from Title 1 Federal funding that was cut from public schools as a result. A 10 percent across-the-board cut would jeopardize Social Security and Medicare, veterans programs and student loans."

Kohnstamm added that Duckworth has "used her positions on the Armed Services and Oversight and Government Reform Committees to cut waste and fraud in defense spending, including passing an amendment to eliminate duplicative camouflage uniform development that will save the Army $82 million per year alone," among other examples.

The 8th congressional district contest is not as high-profile as it was in 2012, when Duckworth, of Hoffman Estates, unseated former one-term congressman and Tea Party icon Joe Walsh.

The state's nationally-watched 8th congressional district battle in 2012 was one of the most expensive races in the country during that election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org, which shows that the candidates together spent more than $7.2 million.

This time around, the 2014 House race in Illinois' 8th congressional district is rated  "likely Democratic" by the Cook Political Report. The "likely" category means the race is "not competitive at this point," but it has the "potential to become engaged."

But "you never know" what could happen, Warden stressed.

"I think all races are close races until someone wins. I truly do," she said. "I don't think any candidate and any voter should ever rest on the laurels of 'I don't have to work harder.' The candidate should always be working for the voters' vote, and the voters should alway be the responsible citizen that goes out and votes for the candidate of their choice."

Duckworth's campaign war chest, meanwhile, dwarfs Kaifesh's haul.

The congresswoman has raised nearly $2 million this election cycle and spent more than $703,000, according to OpenSecrets.org. Duckworth's campaign committee had almost $1.4 million in cash on hand as of June 30, the website showed.

The Republican candidate has brought in more than $240,000 and spent close to $190,000. Kaifesh's campaign committee had $50,669 in cash on hand as of June 30.

Kaifesh's campaign did not immediately returned a request for comment for this story.

After his Republican primary election win in March, Kaifesh said he and Duckworth "are probably polar opposites on most issues."

"I'm limited government, smaller taxes, free market capitalism," he said in a interview with Shaw Media's mySuburbanLife.com. "I plan to focus on the economy and make sure it's thriving."

Jeffrey Meyer, Elgin resident and chairman of the Elgin Township Republican Central Committee, said he considers jobs to be the most important issue at stake in the 8th congressional district race.

"Larry gets it," said Meyer, who is also the Republican candidate for state representative in Illinois' 43rd House district. "He understands that both policies here in Springfield and in Illinois and Washington are pushing jobs out of the state of Illinois. I think that's the principal difference between the two; he really understands that and is committed to doing what he can from a public policy standpoint to bring jobs back to Illinois and improve the ones that we have here."

In addition to the economy, some of Kaifesh's key campaign issues include repealing the Affordable Care Act and reforming the tax code. Kaifesh also supports the Keystone Pipeline.

"Mr. Kaifesh wants to defund Planned Parenthood, which will take away cancer screenings and other health services for women," noted Kohnstamm. "He is opposed to marriage equality for gays and lesbians and even said that it is OK for gays and lesbians to be fired from their jobs just because they are gay. Congresswoman Duckworth is a champion for civil rights for all Americans and supports marriage equality, legislation to end discrimination in the workplace and legislation to allow women to fight paycheck discrimination."

In the general election, Kaifesh has been endorsed by Combat Veterans for Congress and the National Defense PAC, according to his campaign website.

Duckworth has landed endorsements from NARAL Pro-Choice America, the United Automobile Workers and the Sierra Clubamong others.

Some of Duckworth's top priorities include preserving Social Security and Medicare and expanding services and supports for veterans, to name just a few. She is in favor of raising the hourly minimum wage in all states to $10.10 and has promoted and co-sponsored federal legislation meant to address the gender wage gap. 

"Congresswoman Duckworth knows that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 will increase the pay of at least 25 million hard working men and women across the country, generating at least $22 billion in increased economic activity and 85,000 additional jobs," Kohnstamm said. "Someone working full-time, year-round at minimum wage today earns just $14,500, nearly $4,000 below the poverty line for a mother with two children. That’s not enough to provide for a family or have a real shot at the American Dream. Mr. Kaifesh refuses to consider raising the minimum wage and wants to leave this issue up to corporations and "'free market forces.'"

Warden said she believes the minimum wage is on the minds of people in the 8th congressional district and elsewhere.

"If you look at the demographics — culturally, socially and economically — of that district there are lots of pockets where it is key to survival that the minimum wage come up," she said.

Duckworth image courtesy of AP Photo/Cliff Owen; Kaifest images courtesy of Pinterest/Larry Kaifesh

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