Sue Duckworth: I’m Not a Label Girl
Friends for 22 Years
Sue Duckworth and I have known each other for 22 years. We got to know each other when we were both spouses of legislators. We attended a lot of House events events together. Sue has been in the legislature for 12 years. After supporting her husband Carl Duckworth while he served in the House for 10 years, she took over his seat when he became ill.
I told Sue that I will never forget the day that we were sitting with Neil Hanson’s wife at a tea. They had a fashion show with women walking by our tables in new department store clothes. And I just kind of looked around, and if not for you I would have bolted.
Sue said, “Well you know we were the young ones. Do you remember all the old ladies that used to sit up in the gallery and crochet? We didn’t fit in that group, now we are that group, Stan.”
Favorite Parts of Serving in Legislature
I asked Sue to tell me about her favorite parts of being in the legislature.
She said, “Mostly just getting to meet new people. And I think what I get the most reward from as far as being a legislator is having a tool box full of names and numbers when one of my constituents or even someone in the state has a problem, if they can’t get through red tape they can call me, and you know all I have to do is say “This is Representative Duckworth” and I get right to the head honcho. And that’s probably the most rewarding is being able to help solve problems and get remedies for constituents that keep running into a brick wall.”
Being a Democrat in the House
Stan: “Sue Duckworth, you’re a Democrat.”
Sue: “Don’t tell anyone. “
Stan: “Well I’m a Republican. How is it that you and I can love each other?”
Sue: “Well, we can do that because we can put that behind us because all that is… I’m not a label girl, Democrat does not define me. This smile defines me.”
Stan: “Who you are, yeah. I told you a theory, when I invited you on, I said, ‘Sue I’m going to ask you how you managed to do it, you are beloved by everyone.’ It does not matter what side of the aisle you are on, it doesn’t matter who you are, how powerful you are, how ordinary you are, because you are beloved by everyone. How do you do that?””
Sue: “Well first off, we can’t judge, we just have to love. And I think that is probably what defines me, not judging people. And as far as labels go, they, ‘they’ being the ‘R’s’ taking up the biggest share of the house floor, but my desk is open to the ‘R’s’ as much as it’s open to the ‘D’s.’ I can easily say I have more friends on the Republican side than I do on the Democrat side, only because there’s more Republicans, right?”
Serving as a Vice-Chairman as a Democrat
Two years ago you were given a vice chairmanship of the committee, those are prized leadership positions that are normally given to the majority party. It was the first time in my experience at the legislature that a Democrat had held a chairmanship of the committee. Tell me about that, how did that happen? Were you the first in the history of the state to do it, tell me about it. It is so cool.
Sue shared, “I’m the first this century. I was told that there was another person. I believe that his name was Pete Santos and he was a Democrat from Tooele County. He was made a co-chair of one of the committees, I’m not positive which one.”
“This is how it happened for me. Brian King, the minority leader, told me that the Speaker wanted to speak to me, but he didn’t tell me why. The Speaker and I were in the kitchen together and he said, in the kitchen, ‘Sue, I want to offer you a chairmanship on higher education appropriations.’ IN THE KITCHEN! He didn’t take me to his office, or ‘the office.’ I’m kinda glad because isn’t your all’s office in the restroom? Right? So I’m kind of glad it was in the kitchen. But I was humbled and I’m grateful for the calling. I call it a calling because it’s an opportunity to have a little more of a voice and have a little more clout than most of my colleagues on the “D” side. I was very much humbled to be able to do that.”
I told Sue that being asked to serve in that position is a sign of respect for her talents and abilities.
Looking Forward to a Break
I asked Sue what she is looking forward to the most since she will no longer be serving in the legislature.
Sue said, “I’ve already done it, not campaigning, not fundraising, not taking out signs and not picking up signs. You know, I’ve done this 22 years. I was Carl’s campaign manager, so I raised the money and we took the signs out and picked them up and walked. I have not missed that. I am really happy to turn this over to Claire Collard and let her play with it and have some fun. I believe that everyone should have an opportunity to serve. So, you know, we have a lay legislature. We have farmers, and ranchers, teachers, and caregivers, and referees. Kara Berkland is a referee, and can I give her a little plug here?”
Handing off the Jar of Cinnamon Bears
“Kara Berkland and I are friends on Facebook and she showed us a picture of her desk drawer and it was full of cinnamon bears. I actually served cinnamon bears on the House Floor. So, everyone comes and gets cinnamon bears. I didn’t know who I was going to turn the cinnamon bear jar over to until I saw Kara and her love for cinnamon bears and her love for people. She is really an amazing legislator and for being appointed to commissioner Wilde’s spot and being elected. I was just thrilled as could be to hand over that jar to her, she is going to serve those cinnamon bears with honor and I’m just really happy that she is going to take it.”
House of Representatives is Like 6th Graders
So listeners are going to wonder what the heck goes on in the house when cinnamon bears are the focal point. But I often tell people, the House is like a Jr. High school. Tell us how it’s like a Jr. High school?
Sue said, “Oh my gosh! I think it is more like 6th grade Stan, we’re not even in junior high. When the Speaker leaves the dais, I kid you not, I have seen objects flying through the chamber. It gets noisy, it’s like when the teacher leaves the room in 6th grade. The problem is, when The Speaker gets back on the dais, it doesn’t get quiet again like when the teacher opens the door. He demands respect but, a lot of times he doesn’t get it. But we love him, we just love him, but you know when you’re trying to herd 75 cats it gets a little difficult.”
There are practical jokes played, there are all sorts of stuff going on on that floor during the legislative session, I think it’s the way you keep your sanity. But it’s a crazy place.
Sue Duckworth receives a lot of respect in the House. I asked her about how she is treated.
“I’ll tell you what, you’re absolutely right when you say that I have respect. I was able to get away with things. The Speaker allows me to get away with a lot of things that a lot of legislators wouldn’t get away. A lot of times my favorite motion is ‘Point of Order.’ I’m going to miss that, I know it, because when something isn’t right it’s time to set things straight. A lot of the time when my light comes on and it’s my turn, the Speaker looks at me and rolls his eyes and just kind of wonders what is going to come out of her mouth this time. So, I’ll miss that. Someone else will pick it up and carry on.”
“You know we think, we wonder sometimes if we’re going to be missed, or if we’re replaceable, and I hate to say it, but legislators are a dime a dozen, just like Walmart workers, Smith’s workers, and the guy at the construction site. You know we work hard but there’s always someone to take our place and hopefully do as good or better a job than we did.”
I told Sue that I call it a water wheel, you get on the water wheel and at some point in time you get off and someone else gets on. The water wheel just keeps turning, and keeps operating and keeps going just like it always has.
Sue and Becky’s Relationship
Sue mentioned that the relationships are the best part, so I asked her to tell us a little bit about her relationship with my late wife, Becky.
Sue shared, “So when we talked a little bit about concerts. I don’t know if you knew this, the reason we started going to concerts together was, I believe that we were at an REO Speedwagon concert at Usana and I was standing in front of the little outhouse and she walked out and we started talking. So that was it. After that trip and that visit at the outhouse, we became concert buddies. We got to go to a few concerts together.”
So as you well know Becky loved ’80’s rock and roll, and Journey was her favorite band. After she passed away, we went to see Journey together, and it was the very best way we could honor her. I know that you and Becky were dear friends.
Sue shared, “You know, I remember being at Beverly Sorenson’s, she had an event and it was before Becky ran for Speaker. When I realized that we weren’t allowed to vote for Speaker because only the party in control gets to vote for Speaker and I am a Democrat, I told her, ‘You just let me know who to talk to, I will do everything to help you get elected to Speaker because you are going to rock it.’ And she did! She totally was the best! And you know what was fun about having Becky as the Speaker was that we had in the minority caucus Jen Seelig as the minority leader. So it was kind of fun to see those two be in a leadership position together.”
Democrats and Republicans Working Together
We talk a lot about the polarization of America and Republicans and Democrats don’t get along and we’re at two opposite ends of the spectrum. But when you’re there in the middle of it all, that is not what is happening. What is happening is that you are getting to know each other. You are trying to figure out where each other comes from. You are trying to understand. And then lo and behold there will be a problem you’re trying to solve and some of your ideas and some of their ideas come together for a great solution and you’re like, “How did that happen?” We found solutions together. But that’s really when the magic of the legislature takes place is when we work together to solve problems.
Sue pointed out how well Becky did as a leader, “And again to Becky’s, to compliment her ability to lead, she nurtured the members of the house, she helped us to be able to get along, and to be the best that we could be. You know Stan no one was excluded in the whole chamber. It was all inclusion. We were all part of that chamber and part of that house caucus. It wasn’t a Democrat caucus and Republican caucus, it was a house caucus and we functioned that way when she was there, when she served.”
She told me that she would often come into your caucus to let you guys know what was going on before she would even go downstairs and tell the Republicans what was going on. I think that’s what she told me one time, “I love going up and spending time with my Democrat friends and tell them what’s going on. I always tell them, look you’re going to get all the opportunity you want to make your case, you’re probably going to lose, but you’re going to have every chance you can to talk about why certain things should happen.” She just had that approach to things. I’m going to give you every chance.” Oh! Here’s another thing she said, “Every legislature is elected the same way. Even though I’m the Speaker, I don’t have any right to do anything above and beyond what all the 74 others do, because we were all elected in the same way I was elected.” That’s an interesting philosophy.
Sue agreed with me, saying “That’s exactly right, that’s exactly right. And you know maybe some of us have a little more in our campaign account and a little more clout with certain groups but when it comes down to pushing that button yes or no, we all get one vote. We all just have one vote and we all have the same vote. Like she said, no one is any better or worse than the other one, we were just an inclusive caucus.”
Becky’s Experience with Failure
I’m going to tell you a little story about Becky. So Becky ran 3 times for leadership and lost three times before she won. And after the first time, she only lost by 3 votes. There was this huge buzz about Becky Lockhart. Here’s this brand-new green-behind-the-ears legislator who has the temerity to run for leadership and she loses by 3 votes. And everyone kind of assumed that the next time she ran, she was going to win. She goes in there and loses again.
And I only saw Becky cry maybe 20 times in our entire marriage, but she came home that night and she cried. And she said to me, “I hate them, I hate my colleagues” She was so devastated that she lost that leadership race. And then she went to bed and the next morning she woke up the next morning and said, “Stan I was wrong, I don’t hate them.”
And it’s just interesting she kept doing it, she felt strongly that she just wanted to help her colleagues. Now here was her big problem, this is why she lost, she refused to tend her colleagues. She wouldn’t call them up and tell them what they wanted to hear, she wouldn’t make sure they had nice warm fuzzies from her, and so after she lost the third time, she said “Maybe I can’t win cause I’m not a tender.” And then when she became Speaker, she was a marvelous tender, she was out there just like you said: she was mentoring, she helped people succeed, and she tried to set them up for success. I thought it was just kind of interesting how her biggest weakness when she became Speaker really became one of her biggest strengths.”
Sue Duckworth’s Husband, Carl
I asked Sue to tell me what she misses most about her late husband Carl. She said, “He did the laundry and the grocery shopping. Do you know, when you don’t have a partner and you have to do the laundry and the grocery shopping, you run out of underwear and you run out of milk? You don’t realize the things they did and the companionship that you have with them. We were married 45 years and we actually liked each other when he left, so that is saying something. We loved each other but we liked each other too. “
“We were kids. When you marry as young as we did, you pretty much raise each other. I have to tell you, when Carl was asked to run for the legislature, his family and friends couldn’t believe their ears because Carl is not a people person, and he wasn’t a people person when he served in the legislature. He would get really frustrated. And that was the difference in his time and his service as opposed to my time and my service. He wasn’t a people person and I was.”
“If there’s something that I can fix, I’ll fix it. If there’s something I can’t fix, I’ll go find someone to fix it for me. He would get really frustrated and the discrepancy in the size of the caucus was really frustrating to him as well. And I think that’s where I didn’t struggle with that because to me it wasn’t a Democrat Caucus or a Republican Caucus, we were just all one caucus.”
Making Her Voice Heard
I asked Sue to share any closing statements. She shared,
“I am grateful that I was able to serve as an intern for 10 year. What I will tell you, is when I used to sit with Carl on the house floor and the Speaker would call for a voice vote, I would always vote. And he would get so mad at me. I would always be that extra vote so the Speaker would be calling whatever he heard was usually the call that he made. So, Carl would get all mad if I would ‘Yay’ or ‘Nay.’ He would tell me, ‘You can’t do that!’ I said, ‘What are they going to do? Fire me?’ I just remember him getting really upset and I didn’t care, I didn’t care, it was fun. And you know that’s why I ran because when he got sick, I loved it as much as he did. No, I loved it more than he did really, I really did. And there it is.”
- The best parts about being in the legislature for her were meeting new people.
- Coming up with a toolbox full of names and numbers that can help people solve problems and get remedies to challenges that people face.
- Sometimes when the average person tries calling into government, it is hard to get a callback. But a legislator can always get a callback.
- When I asked her how are you so loved, she said something very interesting. You can’t judge. You just have to love.
- Everyone should have the opportunity to serve in the legislature.
- The magic of the legislature is working together to solve problems.
- In the end, it is all about relationships. Isn’t that true in all of our lives? In the end, it comes down to relationships. We can learn something from that.