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Young gun

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

Young gun

(Adam Gerik/Peoria Journal Star/AP)

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.

"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.

At home in Peoria the next evening, Schock's pastor was thinking about him, having become a mentor to Schock when he became a Christian just over a year ago. Ritch Boerckel, senior pastor of Bethany Baptist Church, said Schock would often come to the church and leave quickly. Then one day in 2007 he asked to talk with Boerckel about committing his life to Jesus.

Schock's time in the Illinois State House showed him how politics could twist people, even before federal authorities indicted the state's now-impeached governor, Rod Blagojevich, on corruption charges including trying to sell Obama's vacated Senate seat. Schock knew he needed someone higher than himself to trust, he said, needed God's protection against his own foibles. Already he was driving an hour home to Peoria from the State House in Springfield every night, saying it was better to stay "out of that environment" in off hours.

"He sees a lot of the underbelly of the political personal lives. There's an awful lot that goes unseen," Boerckel said about Illinois politics. "God used that."

As Schock drew deeper into Christian faith, he joined Boerckel's discipleship group with four others-something he has had to give up with an office and full-time job in Washington. Schock says now that he struggles to find a peaceful moment to sit and read the Bible.

Schock grew up with parents who attended a conservative Apostolic Christian Church in Minnesota. He said becoming a Christian himself was always "next week, next month, next year," and that he began to question his religious roots in college especially after going on a trip with some friends to Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore that made him wonder whether Christianity would be a part of his life had he been raised in a different culture. But bit by bit Christians around him kept drawing him back to Jesus, he says. He began going to Bethany, and week after week the messages were "spot-on," he says, showing him "how simple salvation is-God does the work." And bit by bit, he says, "I turned my heart over."

Now 800 miles from Peoria and in his third day on the job, two repairmen arrive at his office with a door and proceed to hang it on its hinges. As a power screwdriver bores through wood, the congressman's newly hired staffers-all young men except for one young woman-take calls from constituents. The walls are bare and bookshelves are empty, but on Schock's desk sits a bust of Teddy Roosevelt, his favorite president.

Schock arrives from a lawmakers' morning prayer breakfast and a meeting with Cantor at the Capitol Hill Club, where Cantor offered him the leadership post of deputy whip, a rare snag for a freshman. Energy, Schock says, makes up for his fewer years of experience, and it radiates off his face as he sits down for a meeting with his deputy chief of staff. It also makes up for a life of "getting up early and staying up late," his pastor says, underscoring that already the young lawmaker has been in public office for eight years. "Aaron's rise so quickly really comes from a work ethic more than a hunger to appeal to people," Boerckel said.

The aggressive schedule Schock has set up for himself since he was in his teens has the downside of keeping him from some relationships in his personal life-he isn't married-and throughout his 20s he says he has felt like he has been in a fishbowl. But lawmakers have hundreds of opportunities each day to simply "appeal"-to their colleagues, lobbyists, and their egos-forgetting the reason they were elected, and in some cases forgetting the ethical standards that bind them. Schock compares the experience to the proverbial frog thrown into a pot of water that slowly boils.

Working under the Obama administration and a Democratic Congress with plans for aggressive spending isn't likely to reduce the workload or lessen the challenges. "If you don't want to upset anybody, don't do anything," he says with a laugh. "I've never been afraid to speak my mind."

Freshman class

Of 65 freshman in Congress, 41 are Democrats (nine Senate, 32 House, plus two non-voting delegates), and 22 are Republicans. A few in the House to watch:

Anh "Joseph" Cao, R-La. - The first Vietnamese-American elected to the House is also the first Republican elected in this Louisiana district in over a century, defeating incumbent William Jefferson who faces federal corruption charges.

Jared Polis, D-Colo. - The first openly gay candidate elected to the House (Rep. Barney Frank announced he was gay six years after he was elected).

Pete Olson, R-Texas - One of few Republicans to defeat an incumbent Democrat, Nick Lampson.

Pro-life Democratic freshmen are bucking the party line but in many cases replaced pro-life advocates, like Steve Chabot in Ohio; Kathy Dahlkemper, Pa.; John Boccieri, Ohio; Bobby Bright, Ala.; Parker Griffith, Ala.; Steve Driehaus, Ohio.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.