WASHINGTON, D.C. — If U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock's life story had something of a storybook feel, the swift downward spiral that led to his resignation announcement Tuesday looked more like a Greek tragedy dealing with the dangers of arrogance and pride.
Entering his fourth term in the U.S. House at age 33, Schock looked every bit the rising star of Republican politics that had become his permanent label. He was known as a fund-raising dynamo whose good looks got him on the cover of Men's Health magazine. His quick mind put him in front of TV cameras and helped him join the House leadership as a senior deputy whip.
Schock's political career, however, could not be saved after weeks of ever-increasing revelations about questionable business deals, lavish spending on travel and entertainment and office decor in the style of “Downton Abbey.”
“I do this with a heavy heart,” Schock said in a statement.
He said he had worked hard for his district in Central and Western Illinoiis since his election in 2008, “but the constant questions over the last six weeks have proven a great distraction that has made it too difficult for me to serve the people of the 18th District with the high standards that they deserve and which I have set for myself.”
Schock said March 31 will be his last day in the U.S. House.
His resignation under the shadow of an investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics has set off a scramble for his seat in the heart of Illinois.
Former Rep. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, has not yet decided whether she will throw her hat in the ring, but she was capturing plenty of attention. She has broad name recognition after running for lieutenant governor with Kirk Dillard last year, when they were narrowly edged out by Bruce Rauner and Evelyn Sanguinetti for the Republican nomination.
Dillard told the Chicago Sun-Times that Tracy and state Sen. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, would be the frontrunners. LaHood, who said Wednesday he is forming a federal campaign committee, is the son of former U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, who preceded Schock in Congress.
‘It was not a surprise'
In the wake of those decisions is the wreck of Schock's considerable political career.
The media-savvy Republican from Peoria had drawn attention for being the first member of Congress born in the 1980s, as well as his physical fitness and fundraising prowess. More recently he has come under scrutiny for extravagant spending, payments to donors for flights on private jets and improperly categorized expenses.
The questions raised have included Associated Press investigations of his real estate transactions, air travel and Instagram use. The Associated Press confirmed that the Office of Congressional Ethics had reached out to Schock's associates as it apparently began an investigation.
Word of Schock's resignation was unexpected to some and an indictment of a corrupt political system to others.
“It was not a surprise,” said Quincy businessman Jack Freiburg, who traveled with a Quincy Area Chamber of Commerce contingent last year for the annual Schock Fly-In in Washington, D.C.
“I like the guy, and I think he's a dynamic young man, but I think he's made a lot of mistakes on things that our Illinois politicians, on both sides of the aisle, do when they fly a lot higher than they should on our finances.”
Mike Nobis of JK Creative Printers in Quincy had long known Schock and saw him as a strong advocate.
“Aaron was a champion for the small business owner. He understood what we go through and he spent a lot of time in Quincy. It's a shame that his career has come to this,” Nobis said.
Tracy was seated next to Schock in the Illinois House during her first week in the Legislature in 2006. She remembers him as someone well respected in the House Republican caucus because he was politically astute and hardworking.
“I saw him last week and knew he was going through a political firestorm,” Tracy said. “If he felt like this was going to damage the office, maybe that was a reason to take a big step back.”
Rep. Randy Frese, R-Paloma, said he was “speechless” when he heard about Schock's decision.
“I just don't know the full story. It's a loss. He certainly served our district well,” Frese said.
In a statement, House Speaker John Boehner said: “With this decision, Rep. Schock has put the best interests of his constituents and the House first. I appreciate Aaron's years of service, and I wish him well in the future.”
Although the questions around his spending had begun to attract attention and raise concerns, he was not yet facing concerted pressure from party members to step down.
One of top fundraisers in House
Schock began his political career at age 18 by winning a seat on the Peoria School Board. He was an energetic real estate investor while still in his teens and later beat an incumbent Illinois House member from Peoria. He won the congressional seat in 2008 at age 26.
Schock was one of the top five fundraisers in the U.S. House. He also became known as someone who could speak to the media. He posed for Men's Health to promote fitness, and used Instagram the way older politicians rely on press releases, photo bombing his growing fan base from London to the Florida beach scene.
However, Schock's fall was even swifter. A Washington Post report weeks ago about his “Downton Abbey”-style office decor led to questions about his handling of expenses. An AP examination of his frequent use of air flights around his Illinois district found that he spent more than $40,000 from his House expenses for travel on planes owned by a group of political donors.
AP also used metadata associated with Schock's Instagram account to track his reliance on donor flights and his attendance at concerts and festivals where a Super PAC supporting his campaign spent more than $24,000 for tickets.
A separate AP story detailed how Schock has relied on several political donors for almost all of the Peoria-based real estate deals that have provided much of his personal wealth, estimated at about $1.4 million in 2013.
Even so, until last week, Schock thought he could weather the controversy and had turned to a team of communications strategists and lawyers to head off any more embarrassments.
The Chicago Sun-Times and Politico began questioning discrepancies between mileage reimbursements that Schock was paid and the number of miles on his SUV when he sold it. The gap suggested Schock was billing taxpayers and his campaign for miles that were never driven.
Schock and his advisers realized they had a situation that could not be called an error or misunderstanding, according to a Schock adviser who demanded anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. It proved to be the deciding factor pushing Schock to leave Congress. The Associated Press provided information for this story.