Cover Story
Adam Gerik/Peoria Journal Star/AP

Young gun

Freshman lawmaker Aaron Schock could be a potent weapon for worn-out GOP

Issue: "Schock factor," Jan. 31, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C.-The one thing people in Washington already know about freshman congressman Aaron Schock is that he is young. At 27, he meets the age requirement for serving in the House established in 1787 by James Madison and the Founders with just two years to spare. He is currently the youngest serving member of Congress (House members must be 25 while Senators must be 30 years old), and the first to be born in the 1980s-and already he has scored a leadership post in Congress working with the No. 2 Republican. For fellow Republicans looking to shake up their party's bruised image, that's a good thing, especially in the oldest Congress on record, where the average age in the House is 57 and in the Senate, 63.

Schock, the youngest of three children, always has acted older than his age. As a boy he worked a strawberry business with his siblings on the family farm. At 14 he invested in his own IRA. By the time he turned 19, he was a member of the Peoria, Ill., school board. He finished his four-year college degree in two years then ran for the Illinois state legislature, winning a seat at age 23 as a Republican in a strongly Democratic district. It's a feat he says he accomplished through lots of knocking on doors.

He has spent a few years working in real estate on the side while serving in the state legislature, and won election last November in the district that includes his hometown of Peoria-succeeding retiring Republican Ray LaHood, who has been nominated as President-elect Barack Obama's secretary of transportation. Sometimes Schock eats a full meal, but that's hard to manage between interviews, transitioning to the nation's capital, and learning all he can so no one will push around the youngest of the freshman lawmakers.

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"You can get a lot of places if you work," Schock told me a couple weeks after his election while eating a cookie for lunch.

A work ethic and young blood are what Republicans-and Democrats-need right now, as the 111th Congress convened Jan. 6 under clouds of war in the Middle East, massive job losses at home, a crumbled mortgage market, and unstabilized credit markets. With 257 Democrats and 187 Republicans in the House of Representatives (and one vacancy for Rahm Emanuel, who now serves as Obama's chief of staff), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a Democratic majority to work with that's 20 seats greater than in the last Congress-and is unlikely to face vetoes from an Obama White House as she did from its predecessor.

But the House leadership will have to deal with more factions than meet the eye in the 435-member body, including Blue Dog Democrats who deserted their leadership during crucial bailout votes last year (see related story), and young Republicans like Schock who want to rebuild a party they say has lost not only elections but also its core values.

Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia and the party's newly elected House whip, said Schock is "the role model for what our party needs to do to win back the voters we have lost in recent years." Cantor himself won election to Congress relatively young, at age 39, and knows what it's like to work his way through to the leadership ranks. He campaigned for Schock, as did former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and, as he did for few other Republicans, President George Bush.

Schock believes that the secret for Republicans' resurgence is to find a better way of communicating core principles while attacking their reputation as an isolationist minority. Republicans can draw together a kaleidoscope of demographics, starting with minorities who often agree with conservatives on social issues: "You don't say, 'I'm not going to get the mom vote, the African-American vote, the Latino vote,'" he said. "There's opportunity in these demographics; you start by getting more diversity at a local level."

Other Republicans in the House see him as someone who can draw in young voters previously wooed with Democratic domination in the blog, YouTube, and Twitter spheres. On Facebook, a student group started a "Schock for Congress" page. More recently fans began a group titled "Schock for President in 2016 Election"-the first election year Schock will be old enough to run for high office.

Schock sat on the front row of the House chamber the day he was sworn in to Congress (Jan. 6) with four of his young nephews sitting around him and one draped across his lap. Family members and other supporters sat in the gallery above. In the more than two hours it took for the House to vote, member by member, to elect a speaker for the swearing-in, Schock remained quiet and solitary-not chatting with other lawmakers. Perhaps he was thinking instead about his mom, who cried when she found out he was running for Congress. She worried, he said, that politics might turn him into a crook.

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