Four years ago, a 22 year old Peoria-area Republican challenged a die hard liberal for her State House seat in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. He was energetic, winsome and very conservative in his political views; and he won the hard-fought and expensive battle for Ricca Sloan's House seat in 2004 embarking on a career representing his diverse district at the State Capitol. He was re-elected in 2006.
Last year the 18th congressional district's longtime, powerful Congressman Ray LaHood decided it was time to retire along with his friend and colleague former House Speaker Denny Hastert (R-11CD). Schock, knowing well chances like this one often come along only once in a lifetime, took on the challenge to succeed LaHood. Tuesday, he won a three-way primary with 78% of the vote. Turning 27 in May, Schock is very likely to be one of the nation's youngest ever U.S. Congressmen if he's elected in November.
During his first state House election, IR had a chance to interview Schock. His then-unpolished, honest and fresh approach to making a difference in the world was inspiring and surprising to even me. We haven't had a chance to get Aaron on record yet since Tuesday, and we hope to do so in the days to come, but we were re-reading this 2004 interview, and thought, "This is the core of Aaron Schock. Let's show it to Illinois."
Excerpted from the 2004 Interview:
Eaton: Let's hear a little bit about your background. You kind of zoomed through your education, didn't you?
SCHOCK: It kind of goes in sync a little bit with how I got interested in my school board position. I was a junior at Rich Woods High School in Peoria and had taken all of the accelerated classes: foreign language, algebra in middle school. So when I got to my senior year, the district cut a lot of the AP and advanced courses due to budget deficits. There weren’t a lot of course options.
I was trying to pursue an early graduation route, unfortunately the current board policy would not allow for that. That is how I got to know all of school board members. I felt there was a need for a younger perspective, a firsthand perspective, from someone who was little more in tune with what was going on, on a day to day basis.
I kind of logged that in the back of my head and was going through these issues. And while I was a senior in high school because I could not graduate early, the only thing I had to have was English and P.E. So my senior English class, I’m sorry, my American Government and my history class, I took in summer school.
I was the only student in summer school because it was accelerated classes as opposed to making up classes. But what that allowed me to do my senior year of high school was that I was able to take 21 hours at Illinois Central College my first semester of my senior year. My spring semester of my senior year of high school, I had 22 hours. So then, that coupled with I took CLEP exams, College Level Examination Program, I was able to earn 15 credits through CLEP. So when I came into Bradley, I came in freshman year with junior standing with 57 hours. My major was finance. So I started my junior finance sequence my freshman year at Bradley, I was able to graduate 2 years later.
It was during my freshman year at Bradley that the incumbent school board president was up for reelection. I decided to challenge, run for the board.
E: Was that because you were frustrated with what happened in your high school experience?
SCHOCK: Some of it had to do with my firsthand experience, just an over all feeling that there weren’t a lot of diverse perspectives on the board. I think that in any government body what makes up a good government is diversity and diversity comes in race, sex, socioeconomic background and it comes in age. Case in point, I ran against the youngest person of the school board. She was 54. It was not a diverse representation of experience on there. If you’re going to represent 16,000 students in the city of Peoria and their families, you have to be visiting the schools, you have to understand what their needs are to be able to tackle the problems.
E: How old were you at the time?
SCHOCK: I was 19.
E: That was a little precocious for a 19-year-old to be that aware of the needs in a school board setting, don't you think that’s a little unusual?
SCHOCK: No, actually I don’t. People have said to me since I was elected, ‘You’re kind of a one in a million. You’re doing a good job but you know that wouldn’t be for everybody.’ When I look back at the peers that I went to school with, there were a lot of very bright people. I think many of them would have a lot to offer, on a city council and the federal level.
Now do I think that the seven school board members in Peoria should all be 19-years-old and fresh out of school? No, there has to be balance. And when I ran I did not feel there was balance.
I was also studying finance at Bradley and the school district had faced its third consecutive deficit spending budget and for three consecutive years, the board nor the administration made any effort to reduce spending. And in a couple of cases, they increased spending by adding positions on the administrative level. There was no effort to reduce spending so the finance situation kept escalating and they went from a $200,000 deficit to the year before I was elected, a $7 million deficit.
E: And they just kept on spending. It’s easy it is to spend other people’s money.
You know, Fran, what was amazing to me, once I was on the board, there was another board member who had just been appointed two months before. They put her and me on the finance committee. Now I looked around at the other 7 board members, all who were 50+ and I thought, ‘They’re putting a 19-year-old on the finance committee with this other rookie,’ and it wasn’t because it would be a good experience but because they didn’t know what was going on.
I asked them why was there no effort, no direction given to the administration, no policy set to try and financially and systematically change. They went around and said we were doing the right thing. We kept the class size low, we didn’t want to cut teachers, on and on.
I said "No you weren’t, you were doing something you couldn’t afford to do. It’s about living within your means. Of course I prefer low class sizes. I’d like one-on-one attention but we can’t afford that." But what it made me do, I thought, why did they have this mentality? I started to research where they all came from.
One was a police officer, one was an early childhood educator, one was a former teacher, one was a superintendent, one was a barber and the other a United Way worker. All of them except the barber were from social service agencies, non-profits or government bodies. I had this early childhood educator say, ‘We need to write another grant. We need to lobby our legislators.’ None of them had to deal with a business situation where they had a confined budget you have to work in. And so when they say we were doing what was right, we weren’t laying off teachers I realized then the problem lied within the board.
E: This is systematic, but you can see when you add more zeros to the budgets and it gets larger, and with different jurisdictions it becomes more of a complicated matter. That’s how we end up where we are in our state.
As a 19-year-old, how hard was it to get elected?
SCHOCK: A lot harder than I thought it was going to be, and that was because of what was thrown into the processes. I was challenging the school board president and on a cold, cold winter day after New Years’, I went door to door, it was before New Years’, I got petitions, and went around getting my petitions signed. I needed 200 so I got 230 thinking this was enough. So I turned them in in January, and at the end of January my doorbell rang and actually right before it rang, the board secretary from the school district called and told me that somebody was challenging my petitions.
I said, "What do you mean? They’re challenging the validity of the petitions? Some of the people were not registered voters?" I asked them all before they signed, on and on.
Then I had the sheriff’s deputy on my doorstep and giving me this summons to appear at the election review board hearing. Now any elected position in the state of Illinois where there are objections to petitions filed, there’s a separate election review put together by the city to review the petitions to make a decision. The exception in state law is for only races in school boards.
How ironic is this? It was made up of a committee off its peers. So the election committee was made of two of the members of the board and board secretaries to decide whether my petitions were valid and whether I should remain on the ballot.
E: Who appointed them?
SCHOCK: It was based on longevity. According to the state policy, but it was, just you know, one of the few minute things I’d like to change when I’m elected, why city school board members are in some way experts in election law. What it came down to was people had used ditto marks, and now I understand you should not use ditto marks, but in the directions sheet, there was no mention of not using ditto marks.
People would write the city of Peoria and for county, a ditto mark. Bob Hall began to question, well what is a ditto mark, was the signature line completed? They were straight lines. He ruled one of the sheets basically invalid and so it put me below the 200 required so I was taken from the ballot.
This was the second week in February. The election was on April 2. I had a decision to make. I was the only person running for this position, no one else challenging her. I decided I was not going to roll over and play dead. I wanted to give the voters an option. I was going to run as a write-in candidate. That was kind of like trying to sell ice to Eskimos in Peoria.
All of the leading politicians, the Who’s Who in Peoria kind of poo- pooed the idea told me I was wasting my time. There has never been a successful write-in campaign in Peoria County and very few in the state. People who had tried generally got a handful of votes because they have to do a several step process, spelling your name correctly, remember to vote for you when they see that position the ballot.
They were telling me not to waste my time, bother with yard signs, kind of a lost cause. I did exactly the opposite. At this point my race had created quite a bit media attention because of the challenges by my opponent and the court decision so I had quite a few people calling wiling to help. I had less than two months to campaign so we began to go door to door and we put together a strong grassroots organization and go door to door and basically covered every street on the map. In less than 2 months we went to over 13,000 houses.
E: What’s that district again?
SCHOCK: Peoria Public School's District 150, a city school system, K through 12, 16,000 kids. It’s the fourth largest in the state.
We went door to door, 13,000 houses, I’m thinking that well, one other thing is the amount of money. I thought if I spent $1,000 I’d really be doing something. Yeah, right. We ended up, because I’m frugal, I started pricing door hangers. They wanted 50 cents to make a door hanger. I thought this is ridiculous. I actually priced the card stock and if bought Kinkos and had them copy it, it would cost 17 cents. I could buy the card stock and get it 3 cents, copy it for 2 cents. 5 cents.
I designed it on my home computer with my photo and key points at the bottom. I had a little thing they could clip off a sample ballot and filled my name in under Rhonda Hunt on how to do a write-in. Check the box next to the write-in and so my mission, if you will, was two-fold: First it informed them, tell them who I was, second, it educated them on how to do write-in ballot.
As you know for those people who do vote, they’re very strong willed. Very few people know how to do a write-in. Again, the county commissioner had told me that 9 times out of 10 they screw them up.
Going door to door the response was very good. We actually made these things at home. We got them copied and then we had hand punches and somebody would rip it with the scissors. We made 15,000 of these things. We had little round red rings on the palms of our hands. My family was quite eager to help but they were sore.
But anyway, the response was, ‘Oh we’re rooting for you. Somebody young getting involved.’ And we got media coverage, people covering the fact I was going door to door. Every time somebody would say we’ll put up a sign, we’re going to vote for you. I kept thinking, ‘Are they really going to?’ Are they going to vote for mayor, city council, county treasurer and at the very end the school board. Are they going to even finish and are they going to remember I’m running?
So on election day, we had even bigger yellow cards of the sample ballots. And we had somebody stationed at all 50 precincts at my district.
E: What a great story. . .
SCHOCK: We were 100 feet of the door of the room where the voting was going on like in churches or schools. 100 ft from the door could be right outside the door or right at the edge of the parking lot, so we had people handing them out, and that was a very smart idea.
People would say, "Oh that’s right, I want to vote for that young man." They’d take a card. My vote turn out would have been lot lower had I not done that. They would have forgotten. They could carry this thing with them and write it out correctly. The city commissioner was shocked. Over 99% of the ballots were done correctly.
E: How many votes did you get?
SCHOCK: 6,406 successful write in. 60%.
E: And your opponent?
SCHOCK: 4,300 I think.
I thought I either want to win by a lot or lose by a lot. I didn’t want to think she was taking me court. This was no Mickey Mouse I was running against.
E: So you beat the incumbent board president. As a 19-year-old. Did you have someone helping you professionally?
E: Just had instinct?
SCHOCK: Yeah, because I had a lot of grassroots support and people pulling for me.
We had over 200 volunteers. What I did was I found 50 to each take a precinct and it was their responsibility to fill people that for the day. At least for our city, the elect are open from 6 a.m.- 7 p.m. We ended up having 200.
E: What year was this?
SCHOCK: This was 2001.
E: And have you finished your term?
SCHOCK: I am in the 4th year of a 5-year term.
E: With your experience on school board, have you obtained some ideas that you think would be helpful as a state legislator to correct some of the educational finance issues and other issues. Has this helped?
SCHOCK: I’ve found that unfortunately many of the very people that are making the decisions about public education, small business, et. al. They are the same people that do not take the time to engage people who are experts in those fields to find out how the policies are going to affect them on a daily basis.
No legislator is going to be an expert in all fields. I’m somebody who has spent the last 4 years on school board started a small business, who has a finance degree. I’m not going to be the equivalent of a trial lawyer, physician or a farmer but I’m going to have a perspective of what I think I will bring, I know, is a willingness to engage those people in the 92nd district.
When I’m voting on an issue to find out from them how it will affect them. And that’s been my frustration. We have tried to engage the lawmakers, we have had legislative forum for our senators for the last 3.5 years. The only lawmaker who has refused is Rep. Sloan. She is the lawmaker who represents the largest district.
Our state senators attend who don’t even represent our areas. Our own lawmaker avoids us, and yet something’s wrong and she in fact serves on the education committee. And now is the chair of the appropriation committee for higher education.
And I am a Republican, through and through, I’m not running again her because she is a Democrat. She has not been an engaged and not worked tirelessly on our behalf. She has not been she has not stood up to Chicago and the party interest and done what’s best for our district first.
I believe this, Fran, as strong as I am on the Republican issues, I think that the reason that people will vote for somebody, whether or not you trust them or connect with them, who will do what’s best for the area. And that’s where you get the independent voters. They’re the ones who decide the election.
And if she were doing her job with the area, on behalf of our economic need for our region I don’t think we could stand a chance.
First published on Illinois Leader in 2004. More excerpts to come . . .