Roskam Fighting Local Hero

Posted July 30, 2008 at 6:42pm

After a career that included working as an aide on Capitol Hill and serving in both chambers of the Illinois Legislature — where he rose to become Senate floor leader — Rep. Peter Roskam (R) thought he was about as prepared as anyone could be for a job representing the state’s 6th district in Congress.

Yet in November 2006, three days into freshman orientation for new House Members, Roskam told his wife the learning curve for his new gig wasn’t quite what he expected.

“I turned to her and said, ‘This is like drinking out of a fire hose,’” he recalled in an interview last week. “It’s a totally different dynamic when your name’s on the door.”

Fast-forward a year and a half and with the end of his first term in sight, Roskam has managed not only to find his sea legs but to draw quiet praise and the attention of his peers.

The 46-year-old lawmaker has largely kept his head down and trained his focus on constituent service and district issues since arriving in Washington, D.C. After all, he represents a swing seat in the Chicago suburbs that he won 51 percent to 49 percent last cycle.

Still, Republican insiders have recognized him as an up-and-comer in the party — a fact that was acknowledged recently when he was given a spot on the GOP’s whip team.

“Peter Roskam is sort of the kind of legislator that represents the next generation of leaders,” said Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the Republicans’ Chief Deputy Whip.

Beyond his work on Capitol Hill, Roskam has an interesting political profile. He was one of only a handful of Republicans in targeted races to survive the Democratic wave of 2006, and he represents a key constituency that the GOP lost by a wide margin that year — well-educated, independent-leaning suburbanites. The median income in Roskam’s district is $62,640.

That same voting bloc will again be a deciding factor in 2008.

Roskam also has the distinction of being the only House Member to have served in the state Legislature with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). He and Obama served together for four years in the Illinois Senate, where they both had a seat on the Judiciary Committee. Roskam said he and Obama weren’t particularly close.

He predicted that Obama’s roots in Chicago’s machine politics could prove troublesome for him. Referring to Obama as the Opie Taylor of politics, he said being the fresh-faced newcomer has its pitfalls. Roskam said Obama has not been vetted as much as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive GOP nominee, or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), whom Obama defeated for the Democratic nod.

He said Obama’s Chicago ties were less of an issue in the primary than they will be in the general election.

“The Clintons couldn’t attack him on those things because of their own lack of credibility on some of those issues,” Roskam said. “But those are going to be part of the conversation.”

The Obama Factor

While Roskam believes the White House contest will be much closer than many observers are currently predicting, he’s realistic about the home-state factor and what it means for him and other candidates in November.

Roskam knows that Obama will handily win the 6th district, presenting him with the unique challenge of persuading people to vote for his re-election after pulling the lever for Obama at the top of the ticket.

Still, Roskam believes the downballot Obama bounce could be tempered by the troubles of embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), whom he described as “toxic” back home.

Beyond the presidential race, the Land of Lincoln is a hotbed of political activity on the Congressional level this cycle.

Reps. Ray LaHood (R) and Jerry Weller (R) are retiring, and Democrats view Weller’s seat especially as a prime pickup opportunity. Democrats are also targeting Rep. Mark Kirk (R), who is trying to hold on to his Democratic-leaning Chicago North Shore district.

Roskam said he believes the Congressional seats are a good platform from which state Republicans can expand their rebuilding efforts, provided they hold their own in November.

“I think that there’s a lot of hope there,” he said. “2008 is going to be the year to survive, and I think 2010 is going to be the year to thrive and to move forward.”

Getting Here, Staying Here

When Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) announced his retirement in 2005, Roskam quickly emerged as the GOP frontrunner to succeed him. With Hyde’s full support, Roskam began posting impressive fundraising numbers.

This was Roskam’s second attempt to win a seat in Congress. In 1998 he lost an open-seat primary to fellow state House colleague and now-Rep. Judy Biggert (R).

In 2006, he faced wounded Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth (D), who garnered national and international media attention. Arabic news network Al-Jazeera even traveled to the district to cover the campaign.

“What do men in caves in Pakistan care about this campaign?” Roskam remembers thinking.

The race became a pet project of then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel, who represents an adjoining district and who personally recruited Duckworth. It also served as a proxy battle of sorts between Emanuel and then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

In the end Roskam pulled through. He spent $3.3 million, and Duckworth spent $4.5 million, in addition to the combined $6.5 million both national parties poured into the contest.

“By no means did we take that seat for granted,” said Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y), head of the National Republican Congressional Committee last cycle.

Democrats are monitoring Roskam’s re-election race this year against another Iraq War veteran, Jill Morgenthaler (D), though it has yet to emerge as one of the nation’s top contests.

With the two open-seat races, plus the Kirk challenge and defending Rep. Bill Foster’s (Ill.) seat, Democrats have made Roskam a lower priority this cycle.

Still, he’s taking nothing for granted. At the end of June, Roskam had $1.2 million on hand while Morgenthaler had $231,000.

“They have a wonderful plan for my life — and that’s for me to return to the private sector as soon as possible,” Roskam said of Democrats.

Reynolds said Roskam has “unlimited potential” in his second term and applauded the freshman’s strict attention to fostering his relationship with voters back home.

Roskam’s use of tele-town halls — he has participated in 25, far above the average for Members — has been a driving force in his ability to connect with constituents.

“I think what my district is looking for — and frankly I think what many Americans are looking for — is authenticity in leadership,” Roskam said. “They want to know, do you really believe what you’re telling me? Or is this some poll-driven, focus-group-driven thing? Or is it really what you believe?”

Back to the Minority

Roskam’s first political success can be traced to high school, where he was student Senate president — and a varsity gymnast. But his early career in politics was shaped by his work for two icons of the conservative movement.

After graduating from college in 1983, Roskam taught high school history and government on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.

Next, before going to law school, he landed a job on Capitol Hill as a legislative correspondent and then legislative assistant for a freshman Republican from Texas, Rep. Tom DeLay.

The job only lasted about six or eight months, but Roskam still carries the lessons he learned from the future Majority Leader.

“What I remember about DeLay was a sense of clarity,” Roskam said.

He recalled that one day he went to DeLay with a suggestion — “some stupid idea,” he now says — that was being advocated by a group that generally wasn’t inclined to support Republicans.

“He said, ‘Peter, those are not our people. They’ll never be our people. We’re not going to do anything.’” Roskam said. “That was really formative for me.”

Roskam later went to work for Hyde, an experience that he still gushes about today, before attending law school in Chicago.

Two decades later, Roskam returned to join a post-DeLay GOP Conference that was off-balance and adjusting to new life in the minority — the same place Republicans had been when he worked for DeLay and Hyde.

The class of House Republicans elected in 2006 was just 13, the smallest since the House was expanded to 435 Members. While some freshmen have carved out a much higher profile than others, Roskam has been notably quiet.

He said that he couldn’t comment on his party’s leadership before he arrived last year, but that after the string of “deeply disappointing” special-election losses lately, the House GOP is hitting its stride because of the singular focus on energy and gas prices.

Republicans hope the issue will be able to help them turn the tables and perhaps do better in November than what is currently predicted.

“Expectations are so low,” Roskam said. “It’s like walking into a room and being [former Vice President] Dan Quayle. Everybody has an opinion and then after they talk to them they go ‘Oh, this is actually somebody who can put two sentences together.’ House Republicans I think are in that position. The leadership gets that.”