New Member of the Week: 'Heavenly' pizza maker turns to politics

Freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) worked as a union representative and financial planning consultant before he and his wife decided to open their own business — Saint Giuseppe’s Heavenly Pizza in Moline, Ill.

The business is a family operation; three of Schilling’s children currently work at the restaurant. The business also is closed on Sundays because Schilling said he believes in spending time with his family.

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Even though many questioned that decision when he instituted it, faith and persistence allowed the business to thrive.

But life as an entrepreneur is not always easy. “My family and I have not taken a vacation in 14 years,” he said.

After years of working long hours to make his dream a reality, an exchange between then-candidate Barack Obama and a small-business owner prompted him to rethink his priorities. It came when Obama said he wanted to “spread the wealth around,” Schilling said.

“Here we are, just starting to get our head above water, and we have a president who wants to share my hard work and work ethic,” he said, clarifying his statement by saying Obama wanted to share “my money.”

“I don’t have a problem helping those who can’t help themselves, but I do have a problem helping those who do not go for the American Dream when they have the ability to do so,” he said. “That sounds bad, doesn’t it?” he added with a chuckle.

Schilling felt the country was going in the wrong direction so, although he had never run for office, he entered the race and ended up surprising Democratic Rep. Phil Hare.

In most years, Schilling would stand out among the freshmen for his lack of experience. This year, however, he is part of a movement.

At 47, Schilling is one of more than 35 House members — and four senators — never to have held political office, one of the largest politically inexperienced classes in over five decades.

Schilling thinks that’s a good thing. Career politicians don’t understand how to create jobs or run a business, he said, which is one of the reasons why Washington is out of touch.

“We’re not here for a career, we’re here to serve people,” he said of his fellow freshmen.

During the campaign, Schilling agreed to limit himself to four terms and also turned down the congressional pension and healthcare benefits.

“[People] are sick of politics as usual,” Schilling wrote in a statement announcing his candidacy.

Still, within weeks of taking office in Washington, Schilling took part in two big-donor events at the Capitol Hill Club. Ticket prices at one of the events ranged from $1,000 to $10,000.

In 2010, Schilling rode a wave to victory. The Tea Party, of which Schilling is a member, galvanized the Republican base, leading him to a 10-point victory over the freshman Hare.

But 2012 will likely prove more difficult for him, for two reasons.

First, Democrats are intent on winning this seat back. Obama won the district in 2008 with 59 percent, and Illinois’s 17th district encompasses Rock Island and Quincy, two blue-collar Democratic bastions.

Second, and more problematic for Schilling, is the fact that Illinois will lose a congressional seat due to reapportionment. The State Legislature and governorship are both controlled by Democrats, so Republicans with Democratic strongholds in their districts, like Schilling, could be targets for redistricting.

“If I were any Republican in Illinois, I would be worried,” said Doug Johnson, an election expert at the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College.

Schilling represents the town of Thomson, Ill., the site of a prison where the government has proposed to house the detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Although there is some local support for the plan, Schilling bitterly opposes bringing the detainees to Illinois, fearing they will attract criminal and perhaps terrorist elements to settle in the area.

“It is not rocket science,” he said, explaining how bringing detainees to the area would encourage other bad elements.

To support his argument, he pointed to the 2004 hostage crisis in South Ossetia, an incident where more than 330 people were killed when gunmen took over a school.

Schilling said he is not “fear-mongering,” although he added twice, “I do not remember all the details.”

Days after the crisis, Chechen rebels took credit for the incident, saying they took hostages as part of a separatist fight with Russia.