Pre-Congress careers shape members

Everyone is shaped by past job experiences, and for U.S. lawmakers, this sentiment is no different. From cooking pizzas to running an elementary school to helming a tugboat delivering supplies, members of Congress are grateful for what they learned in their pre-Washington days.

Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) made a deal with his wife, Christie — she would let him open a pizza restaurant if she could name it. So in 1996, after working with his father to build a space previously home to a travel agency, Schilling and his family opened St. Giuseppe’s Heavenly Pizza in Moline, Ill.

“I was born and raised in the restaurant business,” recalled the freshman Republican. At the tender age of 8, he began to see his parent’s restaurant up close and helped out behind the scenes, eventually becoming the head dishwasher. While he admits he didn’t enjoy the work at the time, he says it instilled in him a strong work ethic that he tries to pass along to his 10 children.

The restaurant business is not an easy one to cut a profit in, and the hours can be long. St. Giuseppe’s was no exception.

“Starting out, it was a pretty big struggle, working 60 to 80 hours a week and not making very much money,” Schilling said. Yet with vision, discipline and a devotion to customer service, the restaurant has blossomed into the neighborhood success it is today.

The Illinois lawmaker said his background gives him a unique perspective in Congress, making him more independent-minded and allowing him to work across the aisle for the benefit of the country. “We’re trouble shooters,” Schilling said of small-businessmen, “forced to find solutions for our business. Otherwise the business fails.”

His freshman colleague Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) says she knew she wanted to be a teacher since she was a little girl, delivering her earliest lessons to the dolls and stuffed animals she lined up in her room. Pursuing her passion for education, she started out as a second-grade teacher. Later, the opportunity to make a larger impact meant leaving the classroom for the principal’s office at Skyway Elementary School in Miami. Looking back now, she said, it was “the best job I ever had.”

“The school principal is the most important employee in the school system,” she said.

Over her 12-year tenure, the Florida Democrat said she worked to improve Skyway’s academic performance with a combination of high expectations, tough discipline and a stronger focus on students struggling with the basics, placing them in “intensive care.” As principal, she stood up for her students and their families, succeeding in closing an environmentally dangerous composting plant built across the street from her school. But she says her tenacity did not get in the way of her connection with the students.

“The first thing I did every morning was hug every student that came in,” she remembered.

The greatest lesson she took from her time at Skyway, she says, is respecting that every person is different. Wilson  says she takes the same approach with her congressional colleagues, but sometimes feels the urge to take disciplinary action. Referring to unnamed colleagues, “there are some I would put in detention, and some in intensive care. Congress can use a lot more principals!”

While Wilson is a newcomer to Congress, Alaska’s Republican Rep. Don Young is no stranger — and his classroom couldn’t have been more different. The veteran lawmaker, who was born in California, headed north in 1959, working a variety of jobs that only the vast frontier can offer. After dabbling in gold panning, trapping and commercial fishing, Young eventually settled in Fort Yukon, a 700-person city along the Yukon River.

Situated eight miles within the Arctic Circle, the long-serving, at-large representative spent the winter months teaching fifth grade to Alaska Native students in a 25-student elementary classroom constructed of logs. Come springtime and the breakup of the river ice, Young would leave the classroom behind to assemble a three-man crew and captain his tugboat, Skookum.

Young said he holds dear the lessons he learned while running his barge operation, delivering products and supplies to villages along the Yukon, Porcupine and Kuskokwim rivers. “I have more knowledge on how a person makes a living with their bare hands and how it feels to be cold and hot and sweaty and achieve something,” he said.

The most important lesson he took from his days on the river, he believes, is taking total responsibility for keeping the ship afloat and delivering the products on time. As captain, he expected his crew to unload all cargo from the barge within 24 hours of docking. Today Young is often frustrated with Congress’s lack of efficiency.

“What should be a seven- or eight-minute vote turns into a 30-minute vote!” he complained.