In May 2005, State Senator Peter Roskam (R-Wheaton) announced his intention to fill retiring U.S. Congressman Henry Hyde's seat.
Through skillful political landmine avoidance, Roskam averted a party primary and came out of the March primary armed with money in his war chest and good will among those in the local Republican organization.
Now he's set for what he describes as "a vigorous campaign" in the 6th Congressional District. He's faced with a General Election opponent -- Tammy Duckworth -- who is backed by the national Democratic Party's elite. And last week, the Republican National Committee's Ken Mehlman came to the district to energize Roskam's troops.
Who is this Peter Roskam? Why should people around the state of Illinois and the country be interested in this race?
With the permission of the Illinois Leader, Illinois Review presents a two-part exclusive interview IR's editor Fran Eaton had with Roskam shortly before his announcement in 2005.
We think Peter Roskam is someone conservatives -- not only in Illinois, but nationwide -- should know . . . and know well . . .
Interview with Fran Eaton first published first May, 2005 on Illinois Leader.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT -- Just four blocks from the Glen Ellyn house in which he grew up, Republican State Senator Peter Roskam will formally announce Monday morning his candidacy for the 6th Congressional District seat being vacated by a retiring U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde. The race to replace Hyde is likely to receive national attention. Democrats suggest that they will target the 6th Congressional race as a one of the top two races in the nation.
Roskam is one of several Republican candidates whose names have been recently floated as potential contenders to replace Hyde. His early pursuit and capture of key conservative leader endorsements is likely to have played a role in convincing Senator Dan Cronin to stay out of the race and could have a chilling effect on others such as former State Rep. Tom Johnson (R-West Chicago) or even State Senator Carole Pankau (R-Bloomingdale) , who would both look to conservatives for support.
While talk of other candidates continue to abound, the local party apparatus has decided to support Roskam. At Monday’s rally, DuPage County Chairman Kirk Dillard will endorse Roskam, who served DuPage County as state representative from 1992 until 1998 and in the Senate from 1999 to the present. In 1998, Roskam lost with 40 percent of the vote in a five-way 13th Congressional District Republican primary, finally nabbed by now-Congresswoman Judy Biggert.
In an exclusive with IllinoisLeader.com last Friday, 44 year old Roskam opened his west suburban Wheaton home for an informal late morning interview after an early morning meeting with a potential campaign donor. Roskam and his wife Elizabeth have four children who are the center of their unpretentious home. In the golden-walled living room where the interview was conducted is an antique upright piano graced with well-worn pages of piano student pedagogy. On one wall above the piano hangs a large black and white portrait of the Roskam clan. On another a framed poster featuring children playing hide and seek in a Victorian setting.
In this atmosphere, IllinoisLeader.com spoke with Roskam about his background in politics, how he will work to win within a troubled party, his positions on a few federal issues and what he would do if he were elected to Congress in 2006.
Roskam’s family moved to Glen Ellyn when he was four years old and there he stayed until college and his first year of law school before spending a few years in D.C. as a congressional staffer.
FE: You’ve had some experience in Washington D.C. For a while, didn’t you work for Congressman Tom DeLay (R-Texas)?
ROSKAM: I did. I moved to Washington D.C. back in the mid-80s and started knocking on doors. I had this vague idea that I wanted to work in government, and beyond that I had no notion of what it was all about. A family friend was helpful and he was active on Capitol Hill. He said, “Peter, your parents are not big Republican donors, so you’re not going to get a job in the Administration. You don’t have time to get a civil service job, so you should go to Capitol Hill because if a member of Congress likes you, they can hire you on the spot.” I ended up working for then-freshman Congressman Tom DeLay and that was in 1984-85.
FE: Why him versus anyone else?
R: It was literally an opening. I was doing informational interviews with everybody who would give me eye contact on the Hill. I sat down with one of them over coffee that said, “I just heard of an opening over in DeLay’s office. Why don’t you call them?”
FE: What was your job?
R: I answered mail for him – yeah, very glamorous – I was a legislative correspondent and then a legislative assistant. Ultimately, I was handling health care and education issues. And then an opportunity opened up in Henry Hyde’s office.
FE: Did you experience in DeLay’s office have any effect on your position on issues, or were you already as conservative in your views as you are now?
R: Working for Congressman DeLay and ultimately for Congressman Hyde did have an impact. Both of them had a sense of clarity about who they were and especially, working for Congressman Hyde, he has this winsome ability to communicate his political positions in ways that don’t treat his opponents like enemies. I think that’s a gift. So observing him up close, and how he was respected on both sides of the aisle was formative for me.
FE: Were you coming in with ideas that connected with Republican ideals or were you coming out of college with different views?
R: I knew I wanted to work for a pro-life legislator, that that was an important threshold issue for me. But, for example, I had never given the contra-funding issue any thought – it just was not part of my world. Working for Congressman Hyde and seeing his passion on that and hearing him debate and drafting letters for his review and so forth, that helps inform someone in their mid-twenties. When you’re around that time, a clear-thinking, articulate person does make a difference.
FE: So one of your stipulations was that you wanted to work for a pro-life legislator?
R: Yes, I knew I was Republican, I knew I was pro-life, and I was intuitively conservative, just based on my upbringing. I didn’t grow up in a political family at all. My mom and dad voted, and that was it.
FE: So was it in college that your interest in politics began?
R: In college, I ran for student senate at the University of Illinois and lost by one vote, which was the best experience, in retrospect, that ever happened to me. I learned firsthand the power of a single vote and that lesson is a part of me. I was active in student government, but student government is not politics, it is civics class.
FE: So, what lured you to move to DC and into politics?
R: I did a short stop – I came out of college and did my first year at Chicago Kent College of Law as a day student and was doing an internship for a federal judge in the summertime. I hated my first year of law school and I didn’t like working for the judge -- no reflection on him, I just didn’t enjoy it -- and I’m not a complainer by nature. So if things are bad, I try to change them to the best of my ability.
So after my first year of law school and my first year of internship, I went to the Glen Ellyn Public Library and got the names and addresses of two hundred English speaking schools around the world and I sent them a letter and my resume. I basically said I would come anywhere right now and teach school.
I got a stack of rejection letters, but one school in the Virgin Islands called me up. And lo and behold, two weeks later I was teaching high school in St. Thomas. Taught there for a year, loved it, but wanted to do something else and I knew I had this distant idea of getting involved in government and had no idea what that would be -- how to act out on that. But I knew I had to get to Washington, and that’s how I ended up there.
FE: You spent a year with DeLay, then went to Hyde’s office – a better fit because you were serving the people back home?
R: Right. Henry Hyde was my Congressman at that time and represented Glen Ellyn. When I heard there was an opportunity in his office, I jumped at it and I have a strong recollection of my first meeting with Congressman Hyde. It was a Friday night. He was at his desk in the Rayburn Building. He has in his office an enormous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware – it is huge and beautiful, intimidating and impressive. And he is looking over my little resume with his half-glasses on, and his shock of white hair.
I remember he was sort of clearing his throat, and he looked up over his glasses and said, “Now Peter, you are going to finish law school, aren’t you?” And you know that moment in the job interview when you’ll say anything to get the job? That was my moment. I hear the words, “Absolutely, Congressman,” come out of my mouth and realized, oh my goodness, I was committing myself to finishing law school.
But you know, I am deeply grateful for that push by Congressman Hyde and it made a lot of sense. Once I ultimately came onto his staff and became his liaison to the Judiciary Committee and his liaison to the Foreign Affairs Committee, I began to see how important a legal background was.
He was helpful and made a phone call, and got a place for me at Catholic University as a visiting student in the evening for a year so I could continue my legal studies. Then I ended up moving back to Chicago because I had a hunch that I wanted to run for office and wanted to finish my legal education in the Chicago area. I knew if I graduated in Washington, I would stay there forever and I’d never come back and never run.
FE: In the meantime you met your wife Elizabeth while you were in DC . . .
R: Yes, I met Elizabeth.
FE: You got married and brought her back here?
R: Yes, we got married in 1988.
FE: You’re here for a few years, and then you run for office for the first time?
R: Right, I came back, finished law school at night. Then I was executive director of Educational Assistance Limited, which is a scholarship program that my mom and dad started, and then I ran for an open seat in 1992. The district opened up after the 1992 re-map.
FE: Was there a primary?
R: Yes, there were four candidates and I won the primary. Then in the General Election, my opponent was Pat Cullerton, the younger brother of Senator John Cullerton.
FE: Of course, you won and then ran for re-election in ’94 and ’96. Then in ’98 you had to make a decision – you decided to run for Congress in the five-way primary. Think that will happen this time, as well?
R: We’ll see . . .
FE: There are differing thoughts on primaries. Some people think they are healthy, they show a democratic process in selecting candidates. Others think it’s a waste of money and causes hard feelings. Do you get along with Judy Biggert now?
R: I do. Judy ran a good campaign and she won fair and square. This is America and this is the business that those of us who put our names on the ballot, this is what we’ve chosen. She won, I lost, and she’s been an effective member of Congress and has a great reputation. So many times, the political process involves a lot of sharp elbows. But Judy ran a fair campaign and won.
FE: After you lost in 1998, you went back into private practice and then was appointed to the Illinois Senate. . .
R: Right. I was out for a year, and when Senator Beverly Fawell resigned to care for her grandchildren, I was appointed in her place. She lost an adult son to cancer. Some people talk about family values in this arena, Bev Fawell lives family values. She gave up a Senate seat that she loved in order to care for her grandchildren. I’ll admire her for that forever.
FE: When you joined the Senate, the Republicans were in the majority. . .
R: Yes, I am one of the few people who has served in the both the majority and the minority in the state House and the Senate. I’m not sure if that’s a claim to fame.
FE: You’ve never backpedaled on your conservative views on social issues. Here DuPage County seems to be changing demographically away from a Republican stronghold as city Democrats move in. Some people believe the GOP needs to change their views to reflect the demographics, but that hasn’t happened with you. But it’s true that things are changing in DuPage County – you may have to fight for Hyde’s seat. How do you plan to present your views to this district?
R: I anticipate this campaign to be rigorous. The first time I ran for state rep, I knocked on 10,000 doors myself. I fully intend to do the same thing this time. I’ve already knocked on a thousand. I intend to put together a very well thought out grassroots, aggressive campaign that includes a very hard-working candidate.
Getting to your earlier question, people are looking for authenticity and I really enjoy working with people I don’t necessarily agree with philosophically. They believe in what they’re doing. I find that refreshing and invigorating. Ultimately, you can get a lot done if you can accept the motives of your opponent as decent motives. What we risk sometimes is demonizing people who shouldn’t be demonized, but we should try to understand where we are coming from, understand what the language is they are using to try and communicate their values and we can agree to disagree. But people who are on the other side are not your enemies; they are your opponents. That is the way we need to approach some of these things.
FE: Are you suggesting that it’s not the conservative position on issues people reject then, it’s perhaps the presentation of the issues?
R: I think there’s a lot in how we communicate with people. And if what motivates us, for example, on the life issue is the protection of precious innocents, that is far more inviting than if someone feels ashamed or judged. I think that as advocates on some these issues, our tone is sometimes as important as our message.
FE: In Senate floor debate, you often hold people’s feet to the fire on social issues. Now you are building your base for this campaign. You may get pressure from the more moderate wing of the party to soften on gay marriage, abortion – all of the social issues. How will you handle that?
R: I don’t think you beat Democrats by assimilating – let me speak from my point of view. If I were to all of a sudden change my positions based on the possibility of seeking a higher office, number one, I would lose the support of people who have supported me for years and number two, I would lose the respect of the people I am attempting to woo my way. Nobody likes that. I believe one of the things that President Bush did so well in the campaign was he communicated, “You may not agree with me on every issue, but you know exactly where I stand.” And that I think is leadership, and I admire that in him. I think Congressman Hyde was the same way. You know, people could disagree with him. The old phrase is that you can disagree without being disagreeable. . . I think most voters would rather have somebody they can look in the eye and know where this person is coming from. I may agree with him X percentage of the time, but he’s got a process, he’s got a rationale, I can live with that. I’ve had that feedback. I‘ve had people say to me, I disagree with you on this or that issue, but I’m going to vote for you.
FE: In working with legislators differing views, the thought is to try to find something with which you can work, even if you don’t agree on some issues?
R: Here’s an example: Senator Cullerton and I over the course of several years have been active on the death penalty reform issue. John Cullerton is an honest negotiator and a very smart senator. He is able to come to a negotiation with a conservative Republican like Peter Roskam and we can sit down together. We can say, “Okay, 20 percent of your ideas are off the table, 20 percent of my ideas are off the table, but let’s work on the 60 percent in the middle, and maybe we can see if both the states’ attorneys and the ACLU can handle this.” And the results sometimes are encouraging.
FE: Specifically what have you done on the death penalty issue?
R: We came up with a doctrine called the Fundamental Justice Amendment that is now state law. The Fundamental Justice Amendment says that the Supreme Court can look at a case and rather than coming up with some legal fiction that they believe they have to manipulate, although they would never admit to this by the way.
My hunch is that as legal practitioners, they look at something and just know its not right, but they can’t come up with a reason or rationale for why it’s not right, because everybody crossed their “t’s” and dotted their “I’s”. So they come up with some absurdity that makes everybody crazy, and makes case law very difficult. We said, under the Fundamental Justice system, the court can look at a case and say, we know this is wrong, this person cannot be put to death, and we’re not going to allow him to be put to death. That was amazing that we were able to accomplish that. . .
FE: That amendment gave a lot of power to the judicial branch . . . What is your position on the death penalty?
R: I think, like anybody else – obviously, the overwhelming majority of the Illinois State Senate – I support the death penalty, but no reasonable person is excited about the death penalty. You know when the death penalty is imposed it’s with the feeling of sorrow and disappointment. The state is figuratively putting its head down and saying, we’ve got to do this. I think it’s a necessary tool, we need it as a deterrent to crime and I believe the reforms we’ve advanced are good reforms.
FE: Would you support the death penalty on the federal level, as well?
R: I would support capital punishment, but I don’t think of us who support capital punishment would be out high-fiving when it happens.
FE: We know you have a strong prolife voting record in the Illinois General Assembly, yet others in Illinois Republican congressional delegation hold pro-choice views. For instance, fellow Republicans Mark Kirk and Judy Biggert last week opposed a bill making it illegal to transport minors across state lines for an abortion. You would have held a different position. This week, the same two will be promoting embryonic stem cell research, something both you and President Bush have concerns about. Speaker Hastert and the rest of the GOP delegation are pro-life. How will you work with the Republicans such as pro-choice Kirk and Biggert on something like stem cell research?
R: I don’t ascribe bad faith motives to them. They’re advocates. And they’re advocates of a position they feel passionate about. I think you accept them as acting in good faith, you accept the motives with which they’re approaching this. You know I was vocal in my opposition to stem cell bill – I spoke against it [on the state Senate floor] in November.
But the proponents of this are people who believe passionately that this is going to help people. Now, I disagree with that on the science and on the merits. These are issues of the heart, and you sense that, even in the hush that was referred to in debate on the Senate floor in Springfield. The people who are approaching this who are advocating for embryonic stem cell research are advocating on behalf of a position that they believe in passionately.
I won’t criticize someone for advocating for something in which they believe. The onus is on those who think embryonic stem cell research is not something we should do to also advocate their position. I think the public is weighing this right now and the burden is on both sides to make their case to the public.
FE: The Republican Party is divided on civil unions, the President’s marriage amendment – your opinions are diametrically opposed to others. You, if you take Henry Hyde’s seat, will be looked to as a spokesman, not just as a vote. Will this be a problem in the days to come?
R: I look at it differently. Some people see the cup half empty. I see it half full, actually more than half full. The cup is bubbling over. The President of the United States is unambiguous on his positions and he was wholeheartedly supported by the moderate wing of the party. They’re raising money for him, they’re advocating for him, they’re supporting him in every way. And I say, God bless those people for being so supportive of him. And if they have particular differences on particular issues, let’s do what we can to persuade and win the argument, but don’t assume a bad faith on someone who is voting for a pro-life Speaker, voting for a pro-life majority of the Senate and actively help out by campaigning for a pro-life president.
FE: So, should conservatives take note of that and be more open in helping moderates in return?
R: In this arena, you win only by addition. I think so much of this is attitude and how we approach it. And if there’s ways for us to be helpful to one another without violating a fundamental principle, let’s try and work together.
In Focus Part 2, Roskam explains his thinking on stem cell research, the federal No Child Left Behind education program and what he intends to do if he follows Henry Hyde in representing the 6th Congressional District.