PEORIA, Il. — Like all politicians, Aaron Schock lives in two worlds. There is Washington D.C., where the congressman representing Illinois’ 18th district spends much of his time working and apparently enjoying a tony, perfectly pressed lifestyle.
Then there is Peoria, his hometown. It’s where the congressman must return to answer to his constituents, and where, on Friday, about 100 farmers gathered at the Peoria Farm Bureau for a stick-to-your ribs lunch and to hear Schock speak about their issues.
“Where are we at with trade promotion authority?” one man asked Schock, bringing up a bill that will essentially make it easier for congress to approve trade agreements. “You know what that is?”
“Of course I know what this is,” the congressman replied, setting up the crowd for a laugh line. “I’m surprised you know what that is.”
For a little more than an hour Schock fielded questions from the farmers. The event was preceded by a hastily arranged press conference, where local media—fangs sharpened from days of news out of Washington about Schock’s opulent office and his disgraced former aide—had their chance to question the congressman.
“He never said anything like that around me, my chief of staff or anyone in my office,” Schock said of comments made by Benjamin Cole, a senior advisor who resigned after racist Facebook posts went viral. “It was quite a surprise to me.”
“Usually,” Schock told reporters with a laugh, “I’m the only one who gets scrutinized on their social media accounts.”
That may be true for members of the media and Schock’s colleagues in Washington, but if there were ever a group of people without a single Instagram account among them, the crowd at the Farm Bureau Friday afternoon is it. For the farmers, there were no questions about Downton Abbey-themed offices, dumbfounding and straight-up racist use of social media or alleged sweetheart real-estate deals. Instead, Schock had the great fortune of being able to talk about things he wanted to talk about.
“The reason they’re in a world of hurt is because they’ve never accepted the fact that socialism failed,” Schock informed the farmers of the beleaguered Cuban people.
“The EPA is out of control,” he said to head-nodding agreement.
“As far as tax extenders go, we want to do those now.”
Schock’s Q&A session was a wonky and likely much-appreciated departure from the circus that has surrounded him all week. The farmers showed their appreciation as well.
“All of us applaud your work on tax reform,” one man told Schock.
The event could be thought of as a perfect encapsulation of the duality of Schock’s existence.
On the coasts, the congressman’s sexuality is the subject of rampant speculation. But here it’s barely mentioned, and certainly not brought up by the conservatives who help to keep Schock in office.
In an op-ed today, the Journal Star wrote that the public relations response to Schock’s redecorating project was a knee-jerk to “not wanting to feed a certain narrative.” The turn of phrase is immediately recognizable as a poorly veiled reference to media reports regarding Schock’s sexuality, for those who are aware of them. But for others—likely many of the farmers hanging on Schock’s words on Friday—that “certain narrative” is beyond false; it’s not even known.
“With regards to my red walls,” Schock told reporters, “clearly, I’ll be the first person to say that could have been handled better.”
The folks at the Peoria Farm Bureau didn’t seem to care about the news cycle’s Schock obsessions.
“Everybody’s human,” said Sean Arians, a 32-year-old farmer from Normal.
Their concerns were much simpler.
“He’s doing the best he can as far as representing us,” Arians said.
Indeed, Schock’s grasp of the issues that affect Arians and his peers was evident. He spoke with authority on a variety of farming-centric subjects for more than an hour. And his preference for lavish style—the very thing that kicked off what Schock admitted was “one of the worst” weeks of his political career—was on display only with the impeccable navy suit he wore. Perfect hair, perfect tie, perfect politician.
“I think the good news is my constituents know me, and they know my character, and they know what type of person I am,” Schock told reporters as he flawlessly handled the quickly planned presser. Then, smiling off the scrutiny that’s been following him around all week, he added. “Welcome to my world.”