By Duke Omara
In his final night of campaigning, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) met with a group of Chicago area Asian-American leaders Monday and asked them to return him to Washington so he can continue championing the causes that propelled him to victory six years ago.
“With just 24 hours to go, we can say we have a chance to send the most moderate, independent voices to represent the state of Illinois in the Senate,” said Kirk.
Kirk said the state’s economic future would be “written” in Asia, which he said had two-thirds of the world’s GDP. “We need somebody that represents us here in Illinois and has the broad base of experience to represent the international world class city that I feel we have here,” he said.
“When you see those corn stacks on the highways of Illinois, and the farmers tell me one third of those corn stacks are destined for export markets, that’s why I am so in favor of TPP and TPA,” Kirk said.
The Trans Pacific Partnership is a trade agreement between the United States and Pacific Rim nations, which has come under intense scrutiny by members of both political parties with many charging that it would lead to a loss of American jobs.
The Trade Promotion Authority is a “fast track” provision in the agreement that is meant to guarantee that the TPP is submitted to Congress without an up-or-down vote.
Kirk’s appeal to the Asian community comes at a time when most polls show him trailing his Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) by several points and some polls putting him behind by double digits, something he acknowledged.
“To be only two points behind the Democratic candidate is pretty good for a Republican candidate in Illinois and right now we are ready to go vote. I’m looking forward to hearing the voice of the people,” said Kirk. “We are going to win.”
During the second debate of the campaign, Kirk became embroiled in controversy after he seemed to mock his opponent’s Asian ancestry. During that exchange, Kirk made a quip about Duckworth’s family’s military service while she was talking about her father who fought during the Second World War.
Duckworth, a former Army pilot, had pointed out that she was a member of Daughters of the American Revolution when Kirk quipped: “I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.”
Duckworth was born in Thailand to a U.S. Marine and a Thai mother of Chinese descent and moved to the U.S. as a teen. Kirk later apologized to Duckworth, calling her a hero and offering “gratitude” for her family’s service.
At the meeting with the Asian-American community leaders, Kirk said with the state government “teetering on the edge of bankruptcy,” Illinois needed to send fiscal and social moderates to Washington.
He said he was a pro-choice Republican and was someone who supports marriage equality to make sure “you can love whoever you want to love,” and that his party needed to ameliorate some of its “harsher” social policies.
He said his opponent had a 94 percent House vote alignment with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) and was better suited to represent California than Illinois.
On his falling out with his party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, Kirk said he found Trump’s candidacy “wanting” and that he (Trump) was unfit to be the commander-in-chief because of his temperament.
“So many politicians sell their soul to their party and in my case I have not. I was able to advice the people of Illinois about who would be best for this country,” Kirk explained.
The race for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois is being closely watched as it might be one of those races that determine who takes control of the Senate.
Among those at the gathering was the evening’s host, Arun Sampanthavivat, a Thai community leader and restaurateur who said he wanted to show support for Kirk and highlight some of the things the senator had done for the community.
Sampanthavivat said Kirk had been at the forefront of making O’Hare Airport more friendly and welcoming to people travelling from Asia to Chicago.
In 2011, Kirk was instrumental in pushing forward a privately funded $5.5 million project at O’Hare for new signs and artwork to give the terminal a more international feel.
“Should we need anything, at least we know he will be there. He will listen to us. We need very little as a community but whatever we need we know he is there,” Sampanthavivat stressed repeatedly, adding he expected Kirk to win his re-election fight.
“I just hope he is in good health so he can help this country,” Sampanthavivat said.
Kirk’s health has been an issue on the campaign trail with Duckworth using it to question Kirk’s ability to serve.
On the senator’s controversial remarks regarding his opponent’s ancestry, Sampanthavivat said Kirk had been misunderstood and that the statement did not affect how he regards Kirk.
“People joke all the time. Intelligent people know that. Look at the reality, we joke worse than this all the time. Why should this be the issue?” he wondered.
Talgat Rashid, another attendee at the meeting, said he had been a longtime supporter of the senator and his support went all the way back to when Kirk was a congressman running for his first senate term. Rashid said Kirk was a champion of the local Pakistani and Muslim community.
Rashid cited Kirk’s outreach to the Asian community and his accessibility on matters such as immigration as a reason for his support.
“I am very sure he is going to pull (the votes) because of his track record and I think people should vote on his record on what he has done for the community,” he said. He added he did not expect a big turnout because of early voting.
Rashid dismissed any claims of racial bias regarding Kirk’s statement on Duckworth’s racial background.
“We are with him. If that was the case, he won’t have picked us to serve on his Asian-American Advisory board. I don’t think that is an issue. He may have misspoken,” Rashid said.
In comparing the two candidates, Rashid said Kirk had more experience.
“He knows a lot of people in the Congress and the Senate and he gets things done,” Rashid, who serves in a Donald Trump coalition leader team in Illinois said.
He said he did not believe the rift between Trump and Kirk would last past the election, although he admitted much will have to be done to mend what he said was a “shattered” party.
“I think when Mr. Trump becomes president, they will work together. They have to make sure the party is strong.”
Kirk is due to cast his vote today in Highwood, Il, and will later appear in Northbrook to await the election results.