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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Darin LaHood Is Running as the Anti-Aaron Schock

The state senator is cruising to a win on September 10. Here, he shares his plans for what he would do if he’s elected.

 Photo: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune

Darin LaHood, 47, would have to make a mistake on the scale of Donald Trump arguing that John McCain is not a war hero to lose the special general election on September 10 for Illinois’ solidly Republican 18th congressional district. 

During our phone conversation on Friday for this interview, LaHood, a state senator and former prosecutor, repeats at regular the qualifier, “If I’m so fortunate to win.” Good behavior for any candidate, but come on—he raised half a million dollars for the run this spring and won the Republic primary with 69 percent of the vote—and he’s running in a district that went for Mitt Romney in 2012 by a 23 point margin. There’s not a lot of drama in his race against Democrat Robert Mellon.

But then again, there is—this is former congressman Aaron Schock’s old district. He resigned in March following allegations of misusing funds. 

LaHood, for those who don’t know, is the son of former transportation secretary Ray LaHood, and is considered much more conservative than his father. (Ray LaHood counts Rahm Emanuel as among his “best” friends and, after defense secretary Robert Gates left in 2011, was the only Republican in President Obama’s first-term Cabinet.)

The eldest of four LaHood siblings, Darin graduated from Academy of Our Lady High School in Peoria. He went on to graduate from Loras College, a small Catholic school in Dubuque, Iowa, and later John Marshall Law School. He is married to Peoria-born-and-reared Kristen, a Bradley University graduate and stay-at-home-mom to boys ages 13, 11, and 8. He used to run marathons, he tells me, but doesn’t any more because of a sore hip. Unlike Aaron Schock, LaHood’s not going to make the cover of GQ or wear expensively tailored clothes or travel the globe and strike awesome poses for his fans. “No, I don’t have an Instagram account,” LaHood says.

“Politicians have to remember you work for taxpayers and constituents,” he says. “You have to remain grounded to the people you represent…. People wish we didn’t have to have a special election; it’s an embarrassment for the state. They need reassurance that it’s not going to happen again. They need their representative to follow the rules, be compliant, stay grounded in the district.” His life, he notes, revolves around “having a family; raising our kids.” He touts his work in Springfield to “increase transparency and promote ethical behavior.” Sure sounds like a recitation of how he will not conduct himself in the manner of Schock, who is currently under investigation by the feds.

On the other hand, Schock, 34, who was mentored by Ray LaHood and succeeded him in Congress, seemed destined for the upper reaches of political status and position. He leapt into office while still in his teens, at the Peoria school board, before moving on to the Illinois House (where he was the youngest member) and the U.S. House of Representatives—all under his own steam and obvious talent.

For Darin, it hasn’t hurt to be Ray LaHood’s son. In 1990, after college, Darin joined his father in D.C. for four years—Ray was then chief of staff to Congressman Bob Michel—working first as an intern to Republican congressman Jerry Lewis and then as the California Republican’s legislative assistant, and finally as an assistant on the appropriations committee. After graduating from law school in 1997, Darin worked for nine years as a state and federal prosecutor. In the meantime, in 1995, Bob Michel retired and Ray LaHood ran for and won that seat and kept it for seven terms, up until he joined Obama’s cabinet as transportation secretary.

With his own impressive resume to fall back on, and with his father’s as well, Darin LaHood was excellently positioned in 2011 to win the appointment to a seat in the Illinois Senate when the incumbent Republican retired. Then the Schock resignation opened the opportunity for Darin to run, earlier this month, in the Republican primary for Congress. He crushed his two opponents.

Unlike Schock, a showhorse, Darin LaHood is a workhorse, and he could be in the House for decades to come.

Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

Will you move your family to Washington if you win?

If I were fortunate enough to win, our family will stay in Peoria—actually Dunlap, outside of Peoria. I’ll commute back and forth. Our kids are in school; they have lots of sports and activities.

Good thing then that your family grew accustomed to your being away when the state Senate was in session in Springfield.

In the four and one-half years I’ve been in the state Senate, I’ve spent only one night in Springfield, and that one time was only because we worked until three in the morning. It’s an hour and 20 minute drive between Springfield and Dunlap.

How big an influence was your father on your choice of a career in politics?

I couldn’t have been more blessed to have my mom and dad….I couldn’t ask for better upbringing, coaching me, helping me with my paper route, instilling religion, and serving as a model of how pubic service can be a noble profession. But I took a different path. I’m the first person to go to law school on my mom’s or dad’s sides. I wanted to be a prosecutor. I didn’t think of going to Congress. My passion was to be a prosecutor. I was an assistant state’s attorney in Tazewell County [in Illinois] from 1997 to 2001; I was a federal prosecutor in the office of the U.S. Attorney in Las Vegas from 2001 to 2005, and then lead terrorism prosecutor from 2005 to 2006.

But later, in 2011, when you were appointed to the state Senate seat it didn’t hurt to be named LaHood, right?

Actually the pivotal point for me was when I ran for Peoria County state’s attorney in 2008. I took on an incumbent Democrat. There were 75,000 votes cast and I lost by less than a thousand—and in the year of Obama. That’s when I thought more about elective office. I was extremely disappointed when I lost. I continued to work at a Peoria law firm [Miller, Hall & Triggs] which I’m still at today, and which I joined when I moved my family back to Peoria from Las Vegas in 2006. My name came up during the appointment process because I had run a good and competitive race for state’s attorney. I had raised money. Had I not run and lost I wouldn’t have been appointed [to the state Senate seat]. Then I turned around in 2012 and won a full term.

Which of your state Senate colleagues really stand out?

Matt Murphy, in my caucus, from the Palatine area. He’s articulate, gets stuff done, [and is] an impressive state senator.

How do you think this impasse between Mike Madigan and Bruce Rauner will end?

I don’t know. They’re going to have to compromise. Rauner hasn’t taken revenue [i.e., a tax hike] off the table, but he wants worker’s compensation reform and other things that Madigan can’t stomach. We ought to put Rauner and Madigan in a room and don’t let them out until they reach a deal.

One of the things Rauner’s insisting on is term limits, and I think you could put them in a room between now and Christmas and they still wouldn’t agree on that.

I’m a strong proponent of term limits. I’ve been a chief proponent in the state Senate [LaHood’s plan calls for 10-year limits in both the state Senate and House]. I wasn’t before I got to Springfield, but perhaps the best way of getting that done is through a ballot initiative.

I’ve found in asking people about you that the first thing they say is, he’s way more conservative than his dad.

We’re different people. In any family not all members think alike. [LaHood later said his mother is a “moderate Republican.”] This country has tilted more left over the last six years because of the new president coming in. We need more swing back. Remember, I’m a former prosecutor. We tend to see things more in black and white. If you look at my dad’s actual voting record when he was in Congress, it was very, very conservative. In 2008 he was one of John McCain’s top people and did everything he could to elect McCain.

Yes, but then Barack Obama put him in his Cabinet and your dad told me that he voted for Obama in 2012.

Well, he had a job with him then.

One issue that comes up often is your opposition to same-sex marriage.

Yes, I am against it. Not only that, but I’m a strong believer in the 10th amendment. The federal government should have limited responsibilities—national security, securing the borders, for example. In the state Senate there were a couple of votes implementing Obamacare in Illinois; I voted against both. The health industry is one-sixth of the economy. Turning it over to the federal government? I don’t think the federal government runs things well or efficiently or effectively… In some ways, I’m critical of this current Congress. You wouldn’t know the Republicans are in charge of the Senate or that we control the House and increased our numbers in the midterm election. I’m frustrated that Republicans really haven’t led.

In the Republican primary for the governor’s seat your dad supported Dan Rutherford. Who did you support?

I was officially neutral in the primary. In the general, I was very, very active for Bruce Rauner. I did 13 events for him in my Senate district. Last May, the governor came to Peoria and formally endorsed me and threw a fundraiser that attracted 400 people.

When/if you get to Congress, what committees do you aspire to work on?

Number one would be agriculture; number two transportation. Remember, I’m going to be the lowest of 435 members.

Reminds me of your dad. He told me that if he had had his pick of Cabinet jobs, he would have wanted agriculture first but that wasn’t offered, so he took his next choice, transportation. Now on to a really important question. If you make it to Congress will you sleep in your office?

Let’s just say I’m going to be looking for the cheapest place I can find. I have three kids and 529 [college savings] plans. My brother lives in Rockville, Maryland; I may be looking at his couch.

You’re a fairly young guy, and getting term limits in the Congress would require a constitutional amendment [LaHood advocates for four to eight terms in the House], so it’s unlikely to happen. But if you stuck to your guns about what you call the importance of “citizen legislators” as opposed to “career politicians,” and term-limited yourself, what do you see as next after Congress?

I am a big believer in working very, very hard at the job you have and that puts you in a good position for other opportunities.

Who are you supporting in that big and growing group of GOPers looking to get the Republican nomination for president?

Right now I’m focused on my election; I’m not involved in the presidential race.

What do you think of the deal Obama and Secretary Kerry struck with the Iranians?

I spent time in the U.S. Attorney’s office as the chief terrorism prosecutor…It’s hard for me to trust the Iranian regime, [which has] violated every protocol…. I’m very dubious about them being compliant.

How did a Peoria boy end up in Las Vegas?

While I was in law school, I worked part time for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office in the Criminal Division at 26th and California. I worked night narcotics. My goal, as I said before, was to become a federal prosecutor. I applied to eight offices around the country. It was very difficult to get hired in the Northern or Central Districts of Illinois. In the Central District people never leave. A good friend from law school was an FBI agent in Las Vegas. I had never been there. He told me that the U.S. Attorney was looking to hire prosecutors who had trial experience and experience with gun and drug cases. So I got the job, my wife and I moved, two of our three sons were born there, and I got to work with some of the brightest people.

Did you get into gambling while you were there?

I’m not a gambling guy. I’m an outdoors person. Nine-and-one-half months of the year the weather is great. We went to every national park, skiing, camping and backpacking. It was great but we weren’t sure about raising kids in Las Vegas. It was the best job I’ve had.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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