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updated: 3/27/2011 9:39 AM

Peter Roskam's rise to power

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  • Chief Deputy Whip Peter J. Roskam gives a tv interview on CNN in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building.

       Chief Deputy Whip Peter J. Roskam gives a tv interview on CNN in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Chief Deputy Whip Peter J. Roskam gives a television interview with CNN in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building.

       Chief Deputy Whip Peter J. Roskam gives a television interview with CNN in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • With members of his staff standing by, Chief Deputy Whip Peter J. Roskam gives an interview on CNN, in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building.

       With members of his staff standing by, Chief Deputy Whip Peter J. Roskam gives an interview on CNN, in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Chief Deputy Whip Peter J. Roskam of Wheaton speaks with CNN about House Republicans' push to cut spending, during an interview in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C.

       Chief Deputy Whip Peter J. Roskam of Wheaton speaks with CNN about House Republicans' push to cut spending, during an interview in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

 
By Kerry Lester | Politics and Projects Writer

WASHINGTON -- "Heads up."

Heeding those words of warning, the stifling conference room, packed with reporters, goes silent.

Several seconds pass, and, to the click of camera shutters, in files the second most powerful Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, Majority Leader Eric Cantor. At his heels is the man in the No. 4 slot, Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam, of Wheaton.

For Roskam, the moment is light years away from the days of his first campaign for Illinois state representative from DuPage County's 40th District in 1992. He won that race decisively, as Republicans often do in DuPage, but the prize was to become one of another 117 state House members fighting to be heard.

Here in Washington, D.C., on this day, Roskam is not in a crowd. He stands out as a rising power in a party that took back significant political ground in the midterm election and hopes to take the presidency in two years.

Roskam, who grew up in Glen Ellyn, is poised to go places, perhaps even to one day become the U.S. House Speaker, following in Yorkville Republican Dennis Hastert's footsteps.

Roskam was named chief deputy whip in late November, making him the final power broker at the GOP's leadership table, in line after House Speaker John Boehner, Cantor and Whip Kevin McCarthy.

The three men behind Boehner share many of the same characteristics, a manifestation of their newly invigorated party. They are young. Bold. And unwavering in their ideals.

Each man's speech bursts with energy and newfound authority, as Republicans have control of the House for the first time since 2006.

The talk's all budget these days, as the House Republicans have given the Democrat-controlled Senate two choices to avoid a government shutdown: cut $61 billion from the federal budget in one fell swoop, or pass a temporary, two-week funding bill that cuts $4 billion from the budget in the meantime.

"Last week, we took the steps in the House to begin to get our fiscal house in order," Cantor tells reporters that afternoon. "It's very clear now I think where we sit. The House has acted."

As Cantor speaks, Roskam looks down, the tips of his fingers pushing slightly at the paper that outlines what he plans to say, come time. His lips are slightly pursed. He appears poised, body language fighting any display of anxiousness. After a few moments, Cantor looks to his left, introducing with his velvety Virginia accent, the "gentleman from Illinois."

"Thank you leader," Roskam says with a hard blink, turning to look ahead, focused. "It's clear there are two clear goals here."

One, he says, is that the government stay open. Two, cut the budget.

"Surely we can continue on that pathway and the American public can gain confidence in where we are and where we're going," Roskam says. "I was just home in the district, and it just became increasingly clear to me ... that voters are watching. They're watching how the House is conducting itself."

Roskam's a linchpin in that new Congress, as he works to help a large freshman class of Republicans gel into a cohesive and functional unit, as he works to educate members about legislation high on the Republican agenda and show them, by example, how to serve a diverse constituent base.

"Roskam's savvy. Right away, you knew he was on the fast track," said Drew Cannon, a soft-spoken Oregon native who, for the past eight years, has watched Roskam and the other congressmen from his perch manning the third floor press gallery, which provides a bird's-eye view of the lower chamber.

Those who know Roskam, 49, describe him as intensely intelligent, trustworthy, spiritual, devoted to his wife and family, and a man with a gift for connecting with constituents and colleagues alike.

He's a protege of his former boss, 6th District Congressman Henry Hyde, the staunch conservative who oversaw the House impeachment trial of former President Bill Clinton and wrote the Hyde Amendment that limited federal abortion funding.

The father of four, those closest to him say, practices fiscal frugality that he preaches -- carefully scrutinizing the prices of microwave popcorn at the grocery store, for example, and only purchasing a place to live in D.C. when daughter Gracey came to work on the Hill as a college intern in 2009, though he was elected in November 2006.

The last suburban man to sit at the GOP's leadership table was Dennis Hastert -- a man who, at the outset, is a study in contrasts to Roskam. Roskam's a trial lawyer; Hastert became a politician after a career as a wresting coach at Yorkville High School. Roskam's from DuPage County; Hastert from Kendall. Roskam's trim and pulsing with an intellectual sort of energy; Hastert is more rumpled, relaxed and bear like.

All the same, Roskam's in the power seat where Hastert sat 12 years ago. As the 14th District representative, Hastert was chief deputy whip from 1995 to 1999, before being chosen as House speaker after speaker-elect Bob Livingston of Louisiana hastily resigned following rumors of an extramarital affair.

"The adage in politics about being in the right place and the right time, it really is true," former Hastert chief of staff Scott Palmer said.

Things beyond Hastert's control contributed to his quick elevation, yet he had to have done the right things to be in that spot at the right time.

"When each of those doors opened up, the guy who went through the door was (Hastert) because of the things that he had accomplished, because of the kind of person he was," Palmer said.

Roskam, Palmer said, appears to be similarly ready to step through whatever door might open someday -- speaker, House Republican leader or whip.

"Don't underestimate chief deputy whip," Palmer said. "It's a pretty big job. A pretty high job. He sits at that leadership table. That's pretty amazing for a guy his age. He's only been there five years."

Roskam's advantageous positioning, Palmer said, is due to a number of ingredients.

"He has some of the same traits as Denny. The guy is very sharp, he's very perceptive about the needs of his fellow members, and the word people constantly use with me about him that they used to use about Denny is trustworthy," Palmer said, noting the praise comes from Roskam's honesty in his dealings with colleagues and how he keeps in touch with constituents.

"I think he's very much respected for his ability to listen to people and understand their problems," Palmer said.

Roskam's new power comes with trappings.

In addition to his congressional office, Roskam has a second one, near the House chamber next to McCarthy's, with his name in gilded letters on the white door. But, ever conscious of his image, Roskam said he doesn't use this office much for regular business, and his staff didn't let the Daily Herald inside.

Less than an hour before the House vote on $4 billion in federal budget cuts, Roskam is meeting with constituents from his regular congressional office.

The space paints a picture of a spiritual family man, with framed Bible verses from Exodus and Psalms. A large oil painting hangs on one wall of his family and supporters marching in a suburban parade, painted by his wife Elizabeth. Others hold framed maps of places he's visited, signed by the dignitaries and government officials.

"Hey! Howarya!" Roskam exclaims with practiced ease as a constituent, Elizabeth Montinez, who's had lupus since she was 19, is ushered in. The Lombard resident comes on behalf of the Lupus Foundation. Roskam wants to know about the disease, when and why symptoms come on the strongest. If she's feeling well on this particular day.

It's here that Roskam's body language is most relaxed and open, just as it was 30 minutes before, as another constituent, an IBM executive from Oak Brook, visited to talk about intellectual property issues, investment and company recruitment. And before that, a new Columbian ambassador expressed frustrations with the United States' free trade agreement.

During those three 20-minute sessions, Roskam begins by listening, next asking several pointed questions, finding a way to connect it to an experience he's had.

Roskam has employed -- and honed -- those skills for two decades, first as a member of the Illinois House from 1993-98 and then the state Senate from 2000-2006.

After spending five years in the state House, Roskam made a bid for the 13th Congressional seat in 1998 to replace the retiring Harris Fawell. He was backed by Hastert, then serving as chief deputy whip.

But Roskam lost in the Republican primary to Judy Biggert of Hinsdale by 5 percentage points, after Biggert put close to $300,000 of her own money into her campaign in the final weeks.

What he did next -- deliver a dozen yellow roses to Biggert's Springfield office -- was among one of many right moves that planted the seeds to be in the right place at the right time in the future, one observer said.

"It was a way of showing he was on the team," veteran Washington lobbyist and political adviser Dan Mattoon said. "You don't forget that kind of thing."

That wasn't lost on Biggert, who, upon Roskam's appointment to the state Senate in 2000, returned the favor, sending flowers to his desk.

Roskam entered his first congressional term in January 2007, after narrowly defeating Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates to win the seat held for 16 terms by his former boss, Republican Henry Hyde.

The bitter, costly race was among the most watched congressional contests in the country, with heavy mudslinging from both sides.

That campaign for Congress also was where Roskam would begin a friendship with Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who, four years later as majority whip, would handpick the gentleman from Illinois as his chief deputy.


Coming Monday: How Peter Roskam rose to chief deputy whip in less than five years and the early trials in his new role.

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