Peter Roskam’s Style Lays Ground for Leadership

Posted April 20, 2012 at 5:33pm

Rep. Peter Roskam’s decision to stay out of the messy Illinois primary that pitted a freshman incumbent against a veteran lawmaker was a prescient strategy for a rising leader, Members and political observers said of the GOP’s Chief Deputy Whip.

While some Illinois junkies complain of Roskam’s cautious style when it comes to state politics, others noted that the three-term Republican is wisely picking his spots and building goodwill in a diverse Conference that widely views his future as bright.

“I think he’s trying to build, especially from a Whip position, all the way through, a way of keeping people united,” Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) said of his chief deputy. “He’s one who unites; he doesn’t divide in the process.”

Another Republican lawmaker was more direct, noting that Roskam’s decision to stay out of the primary between Reps. Don Manzullo and Adam Kinzinger, the latter of whom won the messy March contest, “will pay him dividends down the road” as he tries to climb up the leadership ranks. Whereas Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) caught heat for endorsing and financially supporting Kinzinger, Roskam emerged from the contest in his own home state unscathed.

Roskam said the decision to stay out of the primary was driven by his relationship with both Members and that he did not feel any pressure to jump in once Cantor, a member of elected leadership, made his endorsement announcement.

“My role as Chief Deputy Whip is to spend a lot of time listening to members and working with Kevin and trying to build consensus internally,” he said. “So, consistent with that approach, I decided to wave off that whole situation.”

Rep. John Shimkus, a veteran Republican in the Illinois delegation, agreed that Roskam’s decision to stay out, and Rep. Aaron Schock’s decision to aggressively pull for Kinzinger, is illustrative of the lawmakers’ styles and posture. Both lawmakers served in the state Legislature, and both are on the exclusive Ways and Means Committee, but that’s where their similarities end. Roskam holds a prestigious leadership position and largely wields his influence behind the scenes. Schock is a frequent cable news guest who is building up his power network back in the state.

“I think Aaron is teeing things up well for a statewide run someday. I haven’t talked to him about it, but I can see that,” said Shimkus, who joined Schock in backing Kinzinger last month. Meanwhile, Roskam “could become a Whip, sure. I could see him becoming Speaker someday, if he decides he wants it and tries to go for it.”

Of Roskam, Shimkus noted that “you don’t hear anything bad, and you don’t hear a ton great, so he’s probably doing OK.” Republican Policy Committee Chairman Tom Price spun it another way, saying, “He’s not excitable, which is what you want.”

“He understands the machinations of the political process here and the policy process,” the Georgian said. “I think he’s got a very bright future.”

While Roskam consistently wins praise in Washington, D.C., a few Illinois insiders complained that he is less involved back home. Democrats aggressively redrew the Illinois map to favor themselves and have targeted several districts as prime pickup spots in their uphill pursuit of the House majority. Several Illinois sources said Schock and Shimkus are regulars on the fundraising circuit for state legislators and endangered House Members but that Roskam is less of a presence in those circles. Roskam backers note, however, that he helped launch a grass-roots campaign known as the “Illinois Project” for the 2010 cycle that eventually helped the GOP win five House seats including Kinzinger’s.

Kinzinger said there are no residual hard feelings from Roskam choosing to stay out of his contest.

“From my perspective, truly, the primary’s over,” he said.

Roskam could be more helpful to Kinzinger and other freshman lawmakers, as well as endangered incumbents, in other ways. While fundraising and campaign appearances are obvious ways to help colleagues, McCarthy noted that Roskam assists his colleagues as a cautious voice at the leadership table. Unlike the rest of the GOP roster, Roskam hails from a swing district in the Chicago suburbs. In 2008, President Barack Obama won his district, and Roskam himself won a tight battle in 2006 against Democrat Tammy Duckworth, a bright spot for Republicans in an otherwise Democratic year.

“He brings something to the leadership table that I don’t think anyone else has,” McCarthy said.

Colleagues say Roskam’s understated style is reminiscent of another Illinois Republican, former Speaker Dennis Hastert, who unexpectedly rose to the top House office from the same leadership position Roskam now holds. Hastert’s ascent was unique, coming amid the fallout from the resignation of Newt Gingrich and a Speaker-in-waiting, former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), but the similarities between Hastert and Roskam, particularly their work ethic and modest approach, engenders the respect of colleagues.

Said Shimkus, who was close to the former Speaker: “If you look at Hastert, who didn’t make waves and just kept his head down, he was respectful, he didn’t arm-twist. … I guess being under the radar pays off.”