Aaron Schock, veteran of five political campaigns by age 26, wears Italian suits by Ermengildo Zegna and drinks Starbucks. He talks about his party’s need to make strong appeals to African-American voters, and he walks the walk by going into his area’s black churches to sell his message. He carries endorsements of several unions despite being a Republican representing a heavily Democratic legislative district based in Peoria.
Even some of his political opponents seem to admire his political talent.
The Republican nominee for Congress in the 18th District is many things to many people. He may be the new face of a new kind of politics, or he could be another young “change” candidate without the résumé or worldliness for a spot in Washington, D.C. His seven years in Illinois politics suggests to some that the first statement is truer than the second.
Voters in Illinois and throughout the nation seem to crave a change in the way politics are conducted, an approach that goes beyond party lines and addresses the issues. After several years of bickering and gridlock in Springfield and a combative Congress and president in Washington, change is a recurring theme among political candidates.
Schock is well-positioned for what the Rev. Martin Luther Kind Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now,” which has voters reconsidering party affiliation and the traditional roles of “left” and “right” in a search for political leaders who can play nice with each other.
His personality-driven “let’s work together” message could be a winner for Illinois Republicans. Substitute Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s feuding with Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly for President George W. Bush’s battling Congress on the Hill, and Schock may have an edge in being able to transition from one challenging environment to another.
Yet Schock’s age, seen as an asset when paired with his personal appeal, has given critics some ammunition when it comes to policy decisions. He will have to resolve some lingering doubts about his readiness for office to continue his quest to climb the political ladder.
Last November he caused some controversy by suggesting that the United States should sell nuclear arms to Taiwan to counter China. The comments were seen by most observers to be at least naïve and possibly dangerous. His two opponents seized on his comments and said the incident showed Schock was too young and inexperienced to understand foreign policy.
State Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican and deputy minority leader in his chamber, says Schock’s comments were a symptom of his youth, but the good will he built up because of good constituent services helped him survive the incident.
Three months later, the day after the deadly shooting at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Schock made more risky comments. He publicly suggested that if students had been allowed to carry concealed weapons, the outcome could have been different. The comments came a month after he proposed a bill to allow Illinoisans to carry concealed guns.
Schock says he was prompted by a reporter’s question linking the two.
“I was specifically asked by a reporter whether or not what happened at NIU would change my support of my concealed carry legislation. I answered the question. I respect people who disagree on the issue of concealed carry legislation, but the subject has nothing to do with "maturity.’”
Schock’s Democratic opponent in the 18th District says his comments about Taiwan should be of concern to voters.
Colleen Callahan, a Peoria broadcaster in her first run for office, says Schock’s response to the incident, which was to say the Taiwan comments were made in jest, was “equally as troubling” as the comments. Callahan says it highlights her argument that her experience will resonate with voters and that change and experience don’t have to be separate: “I don’t think you have to choose between the two.”
She realizes, however, that she faces an uphill fight to beat Schock, saying it will take a “Herculean effort” to raise the money needed. But she’s confident in her message.
The framing of the Schock/Callahan race is beginning to sound similar to the one for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Comparing his message of bipartisanship and working across the aisle to that of 2008’s most-hyped “change” candidate, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, Schock says his conservative ideology doesn’t impact his ability to seek compromise and get results.
“I wouldn’t say that in order to be a ‘change’ candidate that you have to be moderate.”
His approach has helped him become a prohibitive favorite for higher office in what will probably be a tough year for Republicans. Schock may be insulated from that potential backlash because the congressional district has long been represented by highly visible GOP Reps. Robert Michel and Ray LaHood, and he faces a Democratic opponent who may struggle for name recognition.
He’s even gained support from some Illinois Democrats in his bid for Congress.
“While we don’t see eye-to-eye on everything ideologically, I think he’s going to be a tremendous congressman,” says state Democratic Rep. Susana Mendoza of Chicago, who was the youngest member of the legislature until Schock. “He’ll be a breath of fresh air in Washington.”
It remains to be seen whether Schock is more than “the kind of guy you want your daughter to date,” as Bill Dennis, a Peoria blogger, describes him. But his history of crossing traditional party demographics may help Illinois Republicans break the party mold.
Schock has established an ability to woo African Americans and other disaffected voters into the fold.
After winning 4 percent of the African-American vote in his district in 2004, he won 39 percent in 2006 with the help of unions, including the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union and eight others that endorsed him over his Democratic challenger, Bill Spears.
Dennis suggests that Schock can tailor his message to groups other than solid Republicans without pandering for votes. “Aaron doesn’t hesitate to massage the message when he’s speaking to different groups of people. He doesn’t change the message. He just emphasizes different things.”
Schock engages in retail politics, the door-to-door, constituent-focused service that includes community meetings and chicken dinners — one of the reasons he’s been successful so far. He’s taken the focus off any political difference he may have with his legislative district.
“Here is a legislator who drives back home every single night to be in touch with his constituents,” Mendoza says of Schock’s 75-mile commute each way to and from the state Capitol.
Schock first made a name for himself by winning a spot on the Peoria Public Schools District 150 board. He was a 19-year-old write-in candidate in 2001, after originally being thrown off the ballot.
In a highly organized campaign, Schock says he knocked on 13,000 doors and beat the incumbent by 2,000 votes. He was later elected school board president at age 23.
Mary Spangler, a former colleague of Schock’s and current board member, admits she originally opposed his presence on the board. “I actually wrote into the newspaper against him. I was rallying Peoria. We had to have more people interested in this position who aren’t this age. It was an important position. I had no idea how mature he was. My joke was, I had no idea he was 45,” she says.
Spangler sees Schock’s cross-party appeal in the Peoria area, admitting that she knows many Democrats who support him. Disagreements on issues have not prevented her from recognizing his ability to be productive in Springfield. “With Aaron, I see a politician who is about getting things done, not just using rhetoric.”
Whether Schock’s record in Springfield is one of getting things done is not entirely clear.
Few of Schock’s measures made it through the Illinois General Assembly, which is controlled by the opposite party. Schock sponsored 22 pieces of legislation in the past two years. Of those, five became law, including one that set eligibility guidelines for programs for the disabled, another that allows cameras in school buses and a law that allows autistic patients to be eligible for Medicaid services.
Schock also sponsored bills on a variety of issues affecting people in his district, including reforms to No Child Left Behind, offering higher education assistance to single parents and a prescription drug price-finder.
The measures he’s advanced primarily focus on local concerns or policies that don’t require a lot of heavy debate.
“All were innovative approaches to addressing social needs,” he says.
Whether he’s successful in passing laws as a member of the minority party is important, in particular, because Republicans will continue to be the minority in Congress after the November election, according to Kent Redfield, professor of political studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Redfield also says Schock’s track record in the 92nd District with traditionally Democratic constituencies gives him credibility when he talks about bipartisanship.
Black, the Danville Republican, says Schock doesn’t view the world in ideological terms, a trait that he believes will help a freshman in Congress. “He doesn’t regard the center of the aisle as a Berlin Wall. He’s focused on results.”
Schock may be in for a rude awakening, however, if he makes it to Washington, where he may be frustrated by the slow pace of change.
“When you’re one of 435, it’s hard to shake things up,” Black says.
Shaking things up is exactly what has got Schock this far.
Dennis, admittedly not a big Schock supporter, says Schock’s rise to rock-star status is “a combination of good luck and hard work.” However, he also praises Schock’s knack for connecting with voters.
“No one can out-campaign and out-schmooze Aaron Schock because he listens to people. Even if he doesn’t agree with you, you’re going to come away being glad he listened.”
Good luck can’t fully explain Schock’s success in politics, though.
Ricca Slone was the incumbent whom Schock, then 23, defeated in an upset race for state representative in 2004.
“As a candidate, I think he’s a natural,” Slone says. “He’s on the order of Barack Obama.”
She adds that campaigning against his boyish appeal made her feel as though she was on a job interview while Schock was asking voters for a date.
Schock captured the district by fewer than 300 votes in 2004, even though Slone raised $200,000 more than he did and had previously run unopposed for four terms, never winning less than 70 percent of the votes in a general election. Schock’s campaign benefited by more than $400,000 from House Minority Leader Tom Cross and other fellow Republicans.
Despite the hard-fought race, Schock and Slone both say the campaign generally was positive.
Schock says his personal philosophy on campaigning is not to go negative, but to focus on his own message and the issues. “I’ve never run a campaign against my opponent.”
Evidence suggests that Schock goes beyond the ritual niceties of politics to connect with fellow legislators.
Lobbyist and former Republican state representative Tom Ryder describes Schock’s interaction with the late Democratic Rep. Louvana Jones of Chicago in 2004. Ryder says Jones had supported Schock’s opponent and had campaigned hard against him. But shortly after defeating her candidate, Schock approached Jones on the House floor.
“She was so happy at the demeanor and the manner in which he presented himself, very respectfully. She was delighted,” Ryder says. Schock and Jones worked closely on a community college housing bill that session.
Despite having a solidly conservative philosophy and voting record on abortion, gun rights, gay marriage and other bread-and-butter conservative issues, Schock won 59 percent of the vote in the 92nd House District in 2006. The election, like his previous efforts, was a testament to his ability as a campaigner, one of his advantages over Callahan in this year’s election.
John Morris, one of Schock’s opponents in the recent primary for the 18th Congressional District, remembers meeting Schock during his campaign for school board seven years ago. “This is a personality that has been created by our times. But this is also someone with extreme discipline. He’s a machine.”
Illinois Issues, April 2008