Fighting to Make Changes in Springfield

After successfully running for District 150’s school board right out of high school, State Representative Aaron Schock has clearly made a name for himself in his political work for central Illinois.

Despite advice from the political establishment to surrender his political career until he had a little more time and experience under his belt, Schock has approached his post with dogged determination to change the way things have been done in Springfield.

He’s proven that it doesn’t take a seasoned veteran to make a difference, but a willingness to learn and a staunch refusal to give up on the community he believes in.

Tell about your background, schools attended, family, etc.
I have three older siblings; Tania, Lisa, and Brandon. All three are married with children, making me the lucky uncle of 12 nieces and nephews. My father is a physician and my mother was the CEO of our household.

My family and I lived on a rural farm site several miles from town, an environment that allowed for many experiences. We had sheep, cattle, rabbits, and horses; my favorite pet however, was our Australian sheep dog, which was trained to round up the herd of sheep at the sound of a whistle. I had a great time roaming through the forests as a child, building tree houses, and riding our miniature four-wheeler. My father believed it was important for us to develop a good work ethic, so he planted a three-acre strawberry patch on our farm, where each summer my family would work in the field, weeding, watering, and picking the berries. At age 5, I had a full-time job answering the phone and taking orders for berries. Several times a day I would jump on the four-wheeler and ride down to the field to deliver the newly placed orders. It was quite an experience. Each year, my parents would let us use the profits to buy something the family could enjoy.

When my family moved to Peoria, I attended Keller Primary and Rolling Acres Middle School, and graduated from Richwoods High School in 2000. I graduated from Bradley University with a B.S. in Finance two years after graduating high school.

You successfully ran for a District 150 school board seat right after high school. Discuss your decision to do so, and what prompted it.

I was a junior in high school who wanted to graduate early and further my education in college. After realizing that school board policy prohibited such a move, I contacted school board members to see about changing the board policy. My attempts were rejected. I then began to study who exactly served on the board and how they arrived at these policy decisions. I went to vote for the first time and was disappointed to see that, despite my frustrations, incumbent board members were running unopposed. I went home from the polling place and called the school board secretary to inquire about what the qualifications for serving on the school board. She informed me that there were only two criteria: you must be a registered voter in the school district, and you must be at least 18 years of age.

I spent the summer after graduation contemplating a run for the school board and talking with friends and family. Most thought I was nuts. Ultimately, I felt a sense of duty and a call to action to run. I believed that my youth and firsthand experiences as a student would add a much-needed perspective on the board. I also believed that school board members should be active representatives in the school community—visiting schools, talking to PTO groups, etc.—and made a commitment to do so as a board member.

When your name was removed from the ballot on a technicality, did you ever consider ending your run?
No—I always believe the old adage, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

I was told by most of the political establishment that my race was over; that I should regroup and consider running for office in the future. I was told there had never been a successful write-in candidate above precinct committeemen in Peoria County, and that despite my efforts, voters would simply forget about my candidacy and/or make a mistake on their write-in ballots.

However, I believed the voters deserved a choice. I didn’t believe the incumbent board president should be re-elected to a five-year term based on a technicality. I decided to pursue my candidacy as a write-in candidate and take my message door to door throughout the district. After visiting 13,000 houses, I was successful in receiving 6,406 accurate write-in ballots, which gave me 60 percent of the vote.

What prompted you to run for state representative in ’04?
My service on the school board in combination with my interest in education and helping people prompted my run for state representative. As a school board member, I was able to see firsthand the flaws in state education policy and the negative effects they had on all downstate schools.

I was disappointed our state representative at the time was the only regional legislator who didn’t meet with the delegation from our school district while we were on our legislative trip to Springfield to inform legislators of our concerns regarding education policy. Later she also declined to meet with us in Peoria, which prompted me to look closely at her voting record. I found I had profound differences with her on many issues, and she failed to advocate on behalf of the economic interests of our district.

Because of my knowledge of how state education policy  affected local school districts, and because I had the opportunity to study many successful reforms made throughout the country I thought should be implemented in Illinois, I felt I had something positive to contribute. Also, because I believed state economic policy was the opposite of what it should be to foster a growing economy, I felt my degree in Finance coupled with my experience in starting a new business after college gave me valuable insights regarding the other pressing problems facing state government.

What is your main focus as a state representative? Why are these issues important to you personally?
My highest priority as a state representative is constituent services and attending community events. I want to be able to help individuals who need an advocate with state agencies and sometimes private businesses. There’s no greater reward than knowing you’ve helped someone or resolved an issue that would have otherwise remained a serious problem. Despite public perception that legislators spend most of their time in Springfield, 75 percent of my time is spent helping individuals in my district here at home.

There are literally hundreds of issues in which I’m interested, but my top priorities are education, human services, and small business. My priority issues match very well with the demographics of my district, which has many “needy” constituents, as well as many businesses within it. Also, these three issues are intertwined. Education is essential in ensuring a highly skilled workforce that encourages employers to expand and provide the jobs that are most important to people who live in my district. Human services provide necessary assistance and training for individuals seeking employment and the care for those who might otherwise fall through the cracks of our social safety net. My focus is to help those who are most vulnerable, and to facilitate excellent educational opportunities for them to become self-sustaining if they are capable of doing so. I deeply believe that improving public schools, colleges, and universities so graduates have the skills companies need is the most effective method of improving the
economy of our state. Therefore, the top concerns of state government are intertwined.

Many of my bills came from discussions with my constituents about their problems. I was astonished to discover that 19,600 people in the 92nd District are on the food stamp program. For example, the first bill I passed addressed residents who receive a grant in assistance (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF), 80 percent of whom are single moms earning between $7 and $10 per hour. My bill established a special scholarship fund so these TANF recipients could attend college and compete for higher paying jobs, thus becoming independent, contributing members of society.

Describe your experiences in Springfield.
After a vicious campaign for state representative, I was surprised by the help and support I received from my colleagues in the House on both sides of the aisle. It’s refreshing to learn that after everyone is sworn in, the vast majority of members want to solve problems and will work hard together to do so. I couldn’t have passed 13 bills in my first two sessions without working with both democrats and republicans.

Also, I was surprised at the number of bills that are considered in Springfield. During the 94th General Assembly, there were over 9,000 bills introduced, and 2,500 of them came to a vote. With thousands of issues before me, it’s important and helpful to reach out to my constituents and those individuals from our area with firsthand knowledge of a particular issue. It’s invigorating to learn about local people’s perspectives on issues before the debate, and it accomplishes two important goals: first, making me a knowledgeable advocate on that issue; and second, allowing me to accurately represent those who live in my district.

Who or what influenced your desire to enter public service?
My father has always led by example. He’s a doctor who makes an annual trip to the poorest areas of Mexico on medical missions to bring medical care to people who have no ability to get care any other way.

After graduating from the 5th grade at Rolling Acres Middle School, I accompanied my father on one of these trips and I saw hundreds of people who sat in lines waiting for treatment. I saw people living in cardboard boxes.

I later went to help build houses for a large deaf community in Jamaica. Each time I returned from one of these trips, I felt fulfilled, but also burdened with a sense of frustration. Many of these same problems— poverty, hunger, lack of health care, and unemployment—don’t exist only in poor, third-world countries, but also here in our community. There are people living here struggling with those same problems. These experiences focused my desire to enter public service.

What is your response to people who wonder how someone so young can have the experience to deal with matters of the state every day?
Soon I’ll be older and people will stop asking me this question. Age is no indication of one’s abilities. I think all groups need diversity and well-balanced membership.

You purchased a home in one of Peoria’s older neighborhoods and located your legislative office in what has become the new Renaissance Park. Why is it important to you to be a part of the process of restoring historic Peoria?
I believe the strength and energy of a city’s core is extremely important. While many cities look to expanded territory as a means of growth for a community, regeneration should play an important part in a city’s growth. Without urban renewal, much of the new tax dollars generated from new development will be spent policing an otherwise deteriorating core. Our community can’t neglect our urban core if we truly want net growth. We must encourage homeowners and business owners to locate and invest in our urban center. While many preach about the importance of reinvestment, I decided to follow Benjamin Franklin’s advice: “The best sermon is a good example.”

Discuss your future plans. Do you see yourself running for other elected offices?
I’m seeking re-election to the General Assembly. I think it’s important to work hard every day and master the issues and skills necessary to help people and create positive change, and I strive to always be open to new ideas.

What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve received since entering public office?
Remember who you work for.

What’s the most rewarding part of being a state representative?
The best part of my job is being able to advocate for people in my district and to help solve serious problems. Having been both a school board member and now a state representative, I’ve learned there are many individuals who have no advocate and through no fault of their own find themselves in dire situations. It’s very rewarding to see these situations resolved.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
There are never enough hours in a day, and I have to sleep at least six of those hours. IBI