Illinois Times

Kid Schock

The boy wonder of the Illinois GOP is poised to become the nation’s youngest congressman. First he has to get past Democratic challenger Colleen Callahan.

R. L. Nave Oct 1, 2008 14:55 PM
Aaron Schock hand-delivers sweet treats to parade-goers in Beardstown.

In a flawless Saturday in Beardstown, Aaron Schock sprints to catch up with his parade float after falling behind to shake hands, slap five with little boys, pose for photographs, and hand out frozen miniature Snickers bars. Volunteers are decked out in crisp yellow-and-sky-blue T-shirts. The candidate himself sports a fresh periwinkle polo tucked neatly into dark Levi's.

By the time the parade is over, his coterie of campaign workers have taken care to ensure that every child along the route — which appears to be every kid in the town of 5,766 — is holding one of Schock's balloons. He thanks his crew, telling him he'll see them soon back in Peoria. It's just past noon and it's the second parade in as many days for Schock, a Republican, and Colleen Callahan, his Democratic opponent in Illinois' 18th Congressional District race.

Colleen Callahan is confident she’ll hold her own against Schock.

Earlier in the week, the candidates met side-by-side to face the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, which will endorse one of them. That same week Callahan toured a Beardstown meatpacking plant, participated in a forum, and held a fundraiser at her Springfield campaign headquarters.

Their genders and a 30-year age difference notwithstanding, the contrasts in their styles are stark. Representing Peoria's inner city, Schock has shown some progressive leanings, but is conservative on most issues. For her part, Callahan couldn't be described as wildly liberal. For example, unlike many on the left, she has no beef with the 2005 national ID law, which establishes federal standards for state-issued driver's licenses and identification cards.

Schock's campaign headquarters hidden away in a corner of a strip shopping center in Peoria Heights, a tony village of stately manors situated on bluffs with breathtaking vistas of Lake Peoria. Six miles away, just south of downtown, sits Callahan for Congress headquarters, next door to a homeless services agency and across the street from a metaphysical bookstore, adult video store, and nightclub. Callahan headquarters has a warm homey feel. Easygoing, she likes to heap thanks and praise upon her college-aged volunteers as if they were nieces and nephews who helped out around the farm while visiting for the summer.

The Schock campaign is high-octane, fueled by high-dollar private and corporate donors. He's raised roughly six times as much money as Callahan and had twice as much cash on hand at the end of the most recent Federal Flections Commissions period in June.

Callahan, an agriculture reporter for 30 years for WMBD radio in Peoria, has often criticized Schock for being a mere money-making machine. At the very least, you could argue that Schock is a politicking machine. One wonders whether he was created in a lab and bred specifically for this line of work.

At age 27, Schock has held elected office for more than a third of his life. He started with a successful write-in campaign for the Peoria school board when he was 19 and is now serving his second term in the Illinois General Assembly. Schock hopes voters will send him to Washington to replace Republican Ray LaHood, a moderate who announced his retirement last fall after holding the seat for six terms.

The knock on Schock is that he may be a little too ambitious for his own good. "I've seized upon opportunities. If anybody told me four years ago when I ran for the Statehouse that I'd be running for Congress, I would have laughed."

Having defeated a Democratic incumbent in the left-leaning 92nd state legislative district in 2004 and wiped the floor with his Republican rivals in the February primary election for the congressional seat, Schock's star is on the rise. It didn't hurt his standing within his party when President George W. Bush dropped in over the summer for a Schock fundraiser, either.

The 18th congressional district spans 20 Illinois counties. In Springfield, it includes most of the west and north sides.

The only Illinois Republican to address the Republican National Convention –- his speech was only hours before Arizona Sen. John McCain accepted the GOP nomination for president — Schock also set up a political action committee earlier this year to aid fellow Republicans around the country, which could help the would-be freshman congressman to secure plum committee appointments and future leadership slots on the Hill.

"I won't deny that I'm a hard worker. Nobody has given me anything in life. There's nobody in my family that's ever run for office. If people think I'm ambitious...," he says, grinning, "then that's better than being called lazy."

he youngest of four children, Schock was born in Minnesota. When he was 10 years old, the family moved to Peoria to be closer to his grandparents. Schock started a business in sixth grade and then performed database management for a local bookstore where he'd ride his bike after school each day. A few years later, he worked for an online ticket brokerage firm. "When you're in seventh or eighth grade you can't spend that much money so I started an IRA retirement account when I was 14," he says.

He started buying real estate the day he turned 18 (Schock shares his birthday, May 28, with former New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani, whom Schock initially endorsed for president). The following year, miffed that the Peoria school board wouldn't waive a gym requirement so that he could graduate early, he successfully ran against the board's president and eventually came to preside over the board himself.

In 2004, at age 23, Schock beat a four-term incumbent, Democratic state Rep. Ricca Slone, making him the youngest member of the state legislature. He'd already received a bachelor's degree in finance after just two years at Bradley University. Schock decided to jettison his legislative seat to run for Congress this year.

Some 20 central Illinois counties comprise the district, which reaches from the eastern edge of Adams County eastward to parts of Decatur. One of three congressional districts with a presence in Springfield, the 18th encompasses most of what would be considered Springfield's west side, the north end, and most of downtown. But the heart of the 18th lies in Peoria County, which has been home to the three U.S. House representatives, all Republicans. So Schock likes his chances, even if brand GOP isn't held in high regard in other parts of the country.

"When I ran four years ago for the Statehouse, everyone said, 'You picked a terrible year to run' because the party was in shambles because George Ryan had just gone to prison," Schock says. (In point of fact, Ryan, the former Illinois governor, was convicted on federal corruption charges in April 2006 and did not begin prison until 2007.) "Then when I ran in '06 everybody said it was a terrible year because nationally the Republicans did very badly and lost control of both houses. When I'm running this year, they're saying, 'You're running in a terrible year. It's the land of Obama in Illinois and you're gonna get clobbered.' So I'm used to running when it's a bad year for Republicans."

Callahan goes over the itinerary with volunteer Jesse Sullivan, a Petersburg native.

He barely squeaked past Ricca Slone by just 235 votes out of nearly 40,000 ballots cast. As the incumbent in 2006, Schock received 58 percent of votes over Democrat Bill Spears. Schock accomplished the feat by capturing 40 percent of the African-American electorate through reaching out to black churches, hosting a yearly kid's fair, and running ads on the Black Entertainment Television cable network. Despite receiving a leg up from blacks in that election, Schock doesn't support race-based affirmative action programs. "I know from my work on the school board that people living in poverty have a more difficult time learning," he says, "but it has nothing to do with ethnicity. Poor white children and poor black children and poor Latino children have just as much of a struggle regardless of their race."

"We have scholarships for poor people. People living in poverty should have more of a leg up than someone coming from an affluent background. But that has more to do with life circumstances than a particular ethnicity."

Schock also introduced concealed handgun legislation during the last legislative session, opposes limits on abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and when the mother's life is at risk, opposes limits on campaign contributions and is hawkish on military matters. He once joked that arming Taiwan with nuclear missiles might induce China to rein in Iran.

On occasion, though, Shock declined to toe the party line. He once worked with Democrats to pass funding for community-based health centers over opposition from fellow House Republicans. Unlike other conservative Republicans, he doesn't demonize member initiatives, commonly known as earmarks. He spread $635,000 in 2008 member-initiatives around a dozen Peoria agencies for healthcare and senior citizen services, afterschool and literacy programs, and computer labs. The Methodist Medical Center Foundation alone received $250,000 for the hospital's cancer center.

Schock also strenuously disagrees with Republican presidential nominee John McCain on the issue of eliminating ethanol subsidies, which McCain named specifically during the first debate with U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois as a way to trim the federal budget.

"I support eliminating the tariffs on sugar cane from Brazil. But our government has a role in helping incentivize these new industries and help them get up off the ground," Schock says. Obama, too, has been one of the most vocal ethanol boosters in Washington. "Although other forms of biofuels may prove more efficient in the long term," Schock adds, "Until we have some other forms, I think ethanol has been a meaningful way for us to lessen our dependence on Mideast oil and lower the price of gas."

n a recent Thursday evening at Callahan for Congress in Peoria, cardboard box tops filled with envelopes stuffed with campaign literature occupy two plastic folding tables, along with three Construction Contractor directories and a copy of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. District maps, Peoria Journal-Star clippings, and a spreadsheet listing names and contact information for 20 Democratic County chairmen are affixed to the south wall. Quotations from John F. Kennedy, Jr., Woodrow Wilson, and university president and motivational speaker Nido Qubein adorn the north wall.

After spending most of the day in Chicago, Callahan arrives at the office at about 6 p.m. dressed in a dark pink suit with paisley-print and a lime top. She is preparing for a forum for congressional candidates to address Constitutional issues. Schock, along with Sen. Dick Durbin and his opponent, Dr. Steve Sauerburg of Jacksonville, were all invited, but only Callahan and Sheldon Schafer of the Green Party show up.

Later, at the event, Callahan studies what appear to be notes in between questions put forth by three Peoria journalists. Her answers don't come off as canned talking points nor is she unnecessarily verbose. When asked a yes or no question, she often answers simply yes or no.

None of Callahan's stances are likely to knock people out of their seats, not any Democrats anyhow. She is pro-choice on abortion, opposes the war in Iraq (where she traveled in 2003), supports universal healthcare, and blames deregulation for the current financial crisis. She does believe in limited use of the death penalty and believes that marriage is a "holy sacrament between a man and woman," but believes it's up to states to make laws about allowing civil unions of homosexuals.

"I have no intention or desire to become a professional politician. This isn't a steppingstone for me, nor is it a resting place," Callahan says when asked by Tanya Koonce of WCBU radio to make her case for why voters should send her to Washington. Callahan comes from a long line of hardcore Democrats. Her grandfather, Joe Callahan, served in the Illinois House. Callahan's father, Fran, chaired the Iroquois County Democratic party. Her uncle Gene, who resides in Springfield, worked for former U.S. senators Alan Dixon and Paul Simon during Simon's tenure as Illinois lieutenant governor. Sheila Simon, the late senator's daughter, even recalls Colleen babysitting her and thinking she "was the coolest person around."

Callahan welcomes supporters at her Springfield campaign headquarters.

Beating Schock is going to take a lot more than cool. So far, Illinois Democratic members of Congress Jan Schakowsky and Jerry Costello have given her some cash. Her contest against Schock is among the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's list of "emerging races," but that hasn't put much money in her coffers. By the end of the most recent reporting period, on June 30, Callahan had raised $276,683 — nothing to sneeze at given she didn't announce her candidacy until March 10, one month after the February primary — and had $155,412 on hand.

At $1.5 million, Schock's hefty war chest was twice the size of the average candidate for U.S. House and contains such blue-chip corporations as Peoria-based Caterpillar, Deere & Co., Exelon, and United Parcel Service, each donating $10,000. ExxonMobile and Home Depot gave $5,000 each. He also got $6,000 from RJ Reynolds. The National Rifle Association gave $4,500 and the National Beer Wholesalers Association chipped in $10,000. Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland gave Schock and Callahan each $1,000.

It's no wonder he opposes limits on contributions. "Unfortunately what we're seeing is more and more self-funders as a result of campaign laws. Too often, the candidate with the most money wins, and so it's very difficult for somebody like myself who's young and not independently wealthy to go out and compete against people who have a large net worth," he says.

Furthermore, Schock rationalizes that since the passage of McCain-Feingold, which limited so-called soft money donors, there are more multimillionaires in the Congress. When seats open up, he says, candidates with the ability to bankroll their own campaigns have an advantage. "Other people are stuck trying to raise money at $2,300 a pop," he says. "You spend all your time fundraising instead of talking about issues."

He says if he's elected he will request appointments on agriculture and transportation and infrastructure committees — issues he believes are of paramount concern of the 18th's citizens — and he promises to not neglect Springfield, saying he'll maintain "excellent working relationships" with fellow Republican state Reps. Raymond Poe and Rich Brauer, as well as state Sen. Larry Bomke and Mayor Tim Davlin, a Democrat.

Although many people think he'll run for president someday, if he defeats Callahan, Schock won't abandon his Congressional gig to seek the nation's highest office anytime soon — he won't even be old enough until 2016.

"I've been flattered that people ask those kinds of questions and make assumptions, but I can honestly say that has not been a goal of mine," Schock says.

On the other hand, "I'm also smart enough to not say I'm never going to run. Obama said he wasn't gonna run either and he did. So people change their minds."

Contact R.L. Nave at