In 2010 a guy I knew a little from my college days in the Quad Cities got in touch with me about his quest to run for Congress. He had never run for any elected office before and knew little about the mechanics of campaigning.
At the time I had been living in Washington DC for a decade and had helped out on a few campaigns, but I didn’t know that much about such things either. Nevertheless, I readily agreed to help.
But Bobby Schilling turned out to be very, very good at campaigning, and it was clear he didn’t really need my help, although I did everything I could think of to assist him. He had put together a sharp campaign team and was able and willing to do the dirty work of asking people to donate money, which he proved very good at doing. I knew he was going to do well.
While 2010 was a good year for Republicans, he was running in a district that had voted Democrat every year since the Carter Administration, and his first meeting with Republican campaign officials in DC was extremely dispiriting: they told him he had little chance of winning and at one point mocked his central Illinois twang.
However, the lack of support from the party apparatchiks didn’t seem to bother him at all—unlike me—and he kept up a steady pace of fundraisers and meetings on his regular visits to town. On a couple of his trips he slept on our couch to save his campaign a few bucks.
He perfectly understood the zeitgeist spreading over the country and—more importantly—the Quad Cities, which had been changing over the years from a dark blue union town to a purple community willing to support a populist Republican years before the arrival of Donald Trump. Few others in the GOP seemed to grasp what was occurring, either in the Quad Cities or across the country. Come November, Bobby handily won the seat.
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While Bobby’s charm and good looks—not to mention his simple decency— made him a good campaigner, he turned out to be an excellent legislator as well. For starters, he managed to get on the House Armed Services Committee after several of us advised him to try for another, less important committee that he had at least a sporting chance of getting on. But he made a compelling argument to the Steering Committee that decides such things, and he got his appointment.
Once there he played an integral role in preserving the jobs on the Rock Island Arsenal by helping it survive a round of consolidation that ended up actually boosting its importance. In a story that is now notorious among the Illinois delegation, Schilling was the first to realize that the consultant hired by the Illinois consortium to help them win the battle against other military installations was also employed by those other installations, an insane conflict of interest that worked against their goals. They quickly jettisoned the consultant and won the political fight.
He also proved himself to be willing to take hard votes without looking back. In 2011 the Tea Party pushed hard to close the government over a budget it deemed unacceptable but that Speaker John Boehner insisted was the best they could do. In a close vote, Schilling backed the Speaker and voted for the bill, which earned him the wrath of the Tea Party and cost him their financial support in the 2012 election. But Schilling stuck his ground and defended it as the best budget the House could achieve, which was the simple truth.
Bobby’s district was redrawn before the 2012 election to make it much more Democratic, and its tilt cost him the support of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which saw his 2010 victory as a fluke.
He narrowly lost the 2012 race and then gave it another try in 2014, encouraged by Boehner and the rest of the GOP House leadership worried about maintaining their majority. He knew the odds were against him but he felt a loyalty to the party and—more importantly—to the country to give it another shot.
In my first decade in Washington, before Bobby ran for office, I worked for almost a dozen politicians, and those relationships all had a similar arc: at the beginning I was slightly in awe of them and what they accomplished to get where they were—several of them chaired powerful House or Senate Committees and one was the GOP nominee for president.
But after I got to know them a bit and their aura of accomplishment wore off I could see them for who they really were, and for nearly every one of them it was a disappointing realization—and a not uncommon one for a political staffer. More than one was pushed out of office due to scandal and others lost their coveted positions because of a lack of political acumen or poor judgement. I left each job seeing them as greatly diminished men.
With Bobby the precise opposite occurred: I knew him and liked him when we played basketball together as teenagers in Rock Island, but as I worked with him in Congress and in his campaigns I gained an increasing amount of respect for how he did his job, how he treated people, and his ability to bring people together to work for a common cause. When he left Congress I thought that there were few people better at the job than Bobby Schilling, and I would gladly help him run for any office he pursued.
On every campaign with Bobby, I always left thinking that it was a pity that someone with his intelligence, decency and political acumen was not running for higher office.
I dropped by the Quad Cities every few months to have lunch with Bobby and talk about his political future. While his post-Congressional career was going swimmingly, he still felt he had an obligation to serve.
When some people approached Bobby to run for Congress in Iowa in 2020 I was enthusiastic—not because I thought it would be an easy race but because the country would be better off with Bobby in Congress.
A long-time member of Congress once observed that everyone takes a different path to Congress: Some people get a seat practically handed to them and some people perform a near miracle to get elected, and it’s the ones in the latter camp who tend to get the most done, regardless of their time in office.
Bobby Schilling ran a remarkable campaign to become a Congressman and got a lot done in the short amount of time he held office. The Quad Cities was fortunate to have him represent it, and I was lucky to have a friend who taught me a lot about campaigns, government, and friendship while restoring my faith in electoral politics.