Behind the scenes, Roskam is House GOP’s‘listener in chief’

Reporter October 31, 2011

The cover of the book “Young Guns” features its three authors — House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), House Republican Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) — posing purposefully beneath a subtitle dubbing them “A New Generation of Conservative Leaders.”

The man just below Cantor and McCarthy on the leadership ladder, House Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (Ill.), is a few years older, less well-known and has no intention of writing a book anytime soon.

But while Roskam earns less ink than his colleagues, he serves as a calming, drama-free influence at the leadership table, and in those sometimes tense meetings where rank-and-file lawmakers are persuaded to vote with the team.

Roskam also is the sole high-ranking member of leadership who has run a recent close race or won in a swing district, and he has a unique perspective on President Obama, as the two men served together in the Illinois state Senate and were on friendly terms.

“I think everybody that comes to this role and this responsibility brings their own personality,” Roskam said in an interview in his Capitol office last week.

Roskam, 50, is prominent in the media back home in Chicago — he sometimes serves as a guest host on a major Windy City conservative radio station. In Washington, he is active on the Ways and Means Committee, pushing one bill to permanently cap tax rates on capital gains and dividends and soon to unveil another that would root out waste and fraud in the Medicare program.

As chief deputy whip — an unelected but important slot in the leadership hierarchy — Roskam does most of his work behind closed doors. He likens his job to that of “a listener in chief.”

“What I have found is that members feel a level of [comfort] telling me things that, my hunch is, they’re not saying to the speaker of the House, or they’re not saying to the majority leader,” Roskam said.

McCarthy said Roskam is adept at conveying complicated policy issues to members, often using analogies he dubbed “Rosk-isms.”

“When he explains something, he does it in a manner that everybody could understand,” McCarthy said. “When he talks he’s kind of like E.F. Hutton — people want to listen.”

The chief deputy whip post has sometimes been the source of tension in the leadership ranks. Then-Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) had a rocky relationship with then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) when he served as DeLay’s deputy, and Cantor had similar issues with Blunt after the Missourian became whip.

While Roskam is respected, he is not seen as anyone’s rival. Neither McCarthy nor the leaders above him lie awake at night worrying that Roskam is plotting to steal their jobs.

“He just has a really nice way about him that’s non-threatening,” said Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi (R-Ohio), who is close to Roskam.

Another friend, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), attributed the lack of intrigue surrounding Roskam to the fact that “everybody trusts him.”

“You meet people up here where you wonder if they have a hidden agenda,” Diaz-Balart said. “Roskam’s a guy — you know where he stands.”

In Springfield, where Roskam spent six years apiece in the Illinois House and Senate, he learned to get along with the future commander in chief. Roskam and Obama served together on the state Senate judiciary committee, and he says they had “a good relationship.”

“We sparred a lot on the floor, but there was a winsomeness to it, a kind of a, ‘It’s not personal, Sonny, it’s strictly business’ kind of feel to it,” Roskam said, citing a memorable quote from “The Godfather.”

Roskam is an unusual figure in the GOP leadership in another way — he is a former personal injury lawyer, a profession not often associated with Republicans. Roskam joked that the combination made him “a freak of nature.” (That vocation is not mentioned on Roskam’s official biography, an omission he called “an oversight.”)

In 2006, Roskam was elected to Congress from a swing district, defeating Democrat Tammy Duckworth by 2 points in an election cycle that strongly favored Democrats.

“It’s a miserable experience to go through, a race like that,” Roskam said. “But when you’re on the other side of it and you look back, I’ve seen a lot of benefits.”

That experience is one that Cantor, McCarthy and Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) haven’t had, and it gives Roskam a special perspective when he deals with endangered lawmakers.

A previous GOP chief deputy whip from Illinois — Rep. Dennis Hastert — vaulted from that post directly to the speakership. That looks unlikely for Roskam, who has also been mentioned as a possible statewide candidate in Illinois.

“Who knows,” Roskam said in response to a question about his future. “What I do know is there is an important role to play here.”

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