Roskam steers campaign toward conservative priorities

Peter Roskam's day on the campaign trail begins when a 20-something man in turquoise shorts and a red shirt paired with black socks and black athletic shoes approaches him as the congressman heads to the Aetna health insurance office in Downers Grove.

“Will you sign a petition?” the man begins asks before Roskam jumps in and asks his name.

“Ken,” the man responds, saying he's with the Coalition for a Better Illinois 6th and has lived in the district his entire life.

Ken states his case: He wants Roskam to sign a petition to force a vote about the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for immigrants.

Roskam, a Wheaton Republican being challenged by Democrat Sean Casten as he seeks his seventh term in the U.S. House from the 6th Congressional District, tells Ken he's here to talk about health care and continues walking briskly toward the door for an hourlong meeting with employees and executives.

It is 9:23 a.m., and the 56-year-old Roskam is focused on the task at hand. With a few staff members in tow, he's courteous while greeting others but always on message, steering and controlling the conversation and emphasizing his priorities.

It is 9:23 a.m., and another day on the trail toward the Nov. 6 election has begun.

Reflect the district

Roskam tends to listen before he talks, and he uses that approach at Aetna. He keeps a piece of scrap paper in front of him folded into thirds, a place for him to make a few notes. He's a man of consistent eye contact who tries to absorb what he's hearing and respond appropriately. He says it's how he shapes the perspectives he brings to Washington, D.C.

“I think my responsibility is to reflect this congressional district in Washington,” he says. “What do they see? What are the things that are top of mind for them? Because Washington can be an echo chamber, where the same people are talking to one another; they're reading the same things.

“What I've tried to do is develop the discipline to make sure that that's not what's happening. That you're hearing from a wide range of people across the spectrum.”

Suit and tie and glasses on, he's listening for success stories, tales of how the new tax law he helped create is serving to boost business or employee bonuses.

He gets one at Aetna. Officials tell him they were able to lower premiums, increase cost-sharing and add benefits for some of their Medicare Advantage plans because of a temporary repeal of a health insurance tax the Affordable Care Act otherwise would have charged.

“You were able to drive things and give people benefits that you wouldn't have been able to offer before,” Roskam says, summing up the newest addition to his list of tax-reform successes.

While Roskam's political ears perk up for the positive effects of the 2017 tax legislation, he's also listening for what's not working. That's how he thinks he'll be able to help make progress on one of the stickier debates in the nation: health care.

The political gridlock over whether to keep or repeal the Affordable Care Act instantly separates politicians into “shirts and skins,” Roskam says, using one of his first sports-culture references of the day.

“Everyone goes right to their team corners,” he says. “And the problem that we've had in this country for the past couple years on the health care discussion is for one group, the Affordable Care Act is orthodoxy, and for the other group, the Affordable Care Act is heresy.”

So representatives from both parties on a subcommittee Roskam chairs are asking a new question of health industry leaders. It's a question he thinks could lead to changes in the law from Congress.

“The provocative question is, ‘What are the regulations that don't make any sense? That are not making it any easier for you to care for people? That are not making it any less expensive?'” Roskam says. “What are the things, in some cases, that are just disheartening?”

The examples he hears become part of a list his health subcommittee is investigating to determine possible changes.

Control discussion

It's just after 10:15 a.m., and Roskam is fielding questions from the Aetna audience.

Their queries reinforce his impression that people in the far-reaching 6th Congressional District, which stretches from Naperville to Tower Lakes and includes parts of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties, are “restless” about health care. He says he wants to lessen that burden with changes to cut the cost of insurance, while still ensuring it will be available to those with pre-existing conditions.

He won't say why the topic so intrigues him, except to say he has three older siblings who are physicians and he's noticed that his “demanding but invigorating” schedule feels a little tougher after age 50. And he won't say much all day about his personal life, his routine or how he balances his district with D.C. and governing with campaigning.

He's a former lawyer, congressional aide and state legislator who knows how to make a point without revealing much about himself.

He closes the conversation at Aetna after 24 minutes and six questions. He offers a round of handshakes and hops a quick elevator ride down seven floors. Then he's on the road again.

It's 10:38 a.m., and he's fallen only a few minutes behind.

Fuel with coffee

On the campaign trail, there is always coffee. And jokes about coffee. Roskam engages in both.

Between scheduled events, he stops with a couple of staffers at a Dunkin' Donuts for a small coffee and orders it black. He sips it with the lid off.

The coffee break comes as Roskam prepares for his next stop.

It's going to be a full day for a longtime representative accused by opponents of making himself scarce, of failing to hold town-hall meetings. In his first televised debate of the campaign against Casten, held on July 26, Roskam says that criticism is “fair enough.”

He doesn't hold town halls, he says during the debate, because they often are “stunts” and “manipulations.” So instead, he meets with groups of constituents in his office, or at schools, company headquarters, facility tours or roundtables. He's had 475 such meetings in the district during this term of Congress and says he's met with thousands during his 12 years as a representative.

He says some Democratic leaders, such as U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin during the 2009 Affordable Care Act debate, did exactly the same thing, realizing the political risks of town halls and steering clear.

“He wisely said, ‘That's not bringing civil discourse,'” Roskam says about Durbin's actions of nine years ago. “The way I've conducted it has. So I've met with over 20,000 individuals or groups of people.” He's about to meet with a dozen or so more.

Business of health

At a business roundtable of the Westmont Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau, the conversation remains health-focused.

The event is scheduled to begin at noon, but 16 business leaders from the suburb of 24,700 already are gathered in the basement of a downtown office building having lunch. Roskam walks into the main level at 11:50 a.m. and finds the Westmont Park District executive director, who remembers meeting the congressman once before. Soon, Roskam knows his name is Bob.

Bob is chatty, so it's 11:57 a.m. by the time Roskam makes it to the basement and opens with another sports analogy, giving chamber leaders the “state of play” in Washington. He goes through projections of economic expansion, how a growing market can help young adults “at the launch stage of life,” how he wants to address anxieties about health care.

But soon he's asking questions, repeating his line about reflecting constituents' views back to Washington. One woman's phone rings loudly and she can't seem to silence it, but he keeps on going.

One of Bob's colleagues at the park district, Gregg Pill, fitness and membership services manager, says his gripe with health care is the plan he chooses always seems to get canceled and replaced with a pricier one.

“You make a great point,” Roskam tells him. If repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act had passed when he supported it in 2017, Roskam says, some challenges would remain, “but we would be in a much better situation today in terms of the price pressures on health care.”

Be that fact or projection, Roskam's audience accepts the premise and moves on, asking about tax reform and trade relations with China.

Those topics covered, Roskam ends his remarks early, at 12:40 p.m. Maybe that's because he knows what comes next.

Soon Roskam and a dozen or so businesspeople are posing on a staircase, smiling in front of a Westmont sign, shaking hands and small-talking. A long goodbye with a few of them, talk of someone's kids and their budding careers, makes the exchange take up all of those 20 free minutes.

“See you again,” he says to some. Or “see you around.”

His staffers have had lunch, catered pizza and salad provided by the chamber. Roskam hasn't. But the day is young.

It's 1 p.m., and Roskam makes a few more notes on his tri-fold piece of scrap paper, fearing he'll otherwise forget the points his Westmont audience made.

There's no time for forgetting now, as the Nov. 6 showdown with Casten approaches.

For now, Roskam heads back to his office. It's 1 p.m., and another day on the campaign trail rolls on.

U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton, center, listens to Aetna health care executives discuss their response to the opioid crisis as he visits with them on the campaign trail in Downers Grove. DAN White photo
U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton listens to Sue Martin, right, clinical manager of the Aetna health Guardian Angel program, as she shares her work against the opioid crisis. Roskam visited Aetna while on the campaign trail. See more at DAN White photo
U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam waits for his introduction to speak to employees of the health insurance company Aetna in Downers Grove. DAN White photo
Peter Roskam makes a campaign stop in Downers Grove to discuss health care regulations. DAN White photo
Robert Fleck, executive director of the Westmont Park District, meets with congressman Peter Roskam before a meeting of the Westmont Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau. DAN White photo
U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam greets Al Carson at the Westmont Centre for a Westmont Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau roundtable, where topics included health insurance, taxes and trade relations with China. DAN White photo
Congressman Peter Roskam listens to members of the Westmont Chamber of Commerce talk about their priorities. DAN White photo

6th District boundaries

The 6th U.S. Congressional District of Illinois takes the shape of a “C” and stretches from Naperville to Tower Lakes in parts of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry Counties. The district includes all or parts of the following communities: Algonquin, Barrington, Barrington Hills, Bartlett, Burr Ridge, Carol Stream, Cary, Clarendon Hills, Crystal Lake, Darien, Deer Park, Downers Grove, East Dundee, Elgin, Forest Lake, Fox River Grove, Glen Ellyn, Gilberts, Hawthorn Woods, Hinsdale, Hoffman Estates, Inverness, Kildeer, Lake Barrington, Lake in the Hills, Lakewood, Lake Zurich, Lisle, Lombard, Long Grove, Naperville, North Barrington, Oak Brook, Oakbrook Terrace, Oakwood Hills, Palatine, Port Barrington, Rolling Meadows, South Barrington, Sleepy Hollow, South Elgin, St. Charles, Tower Lakes, Trout Valley, Warrenville, Wayne, West Chicago, West Dundee, Westmont, Wheaton, Willowbrook, and Winfield.

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