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Republican former Illinois U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling was remembered Wednesday for his optimism and work ethic and for being a poor kid raised in the West End of Rock Island who lacked a college degree but would go on to walk the halls of Congress.
Schilling, who represented the Quad Cities, died Tuesday from cancer, according to his family. He was 57.
Schilling, who was in hospice, passed away quietly at home surrounded by family, including all 10 of his children, said son Terry Schilling.
“Nobody gave Bobby Schilling a handout,” said U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Illinois. “He worked for everything he earned in his life, including his seat in Congress. And Bobby always had a smile on his face. He always looked for the bright side of things, and had boundless amounts of energy and enthusiasm. That’s what makes it really tough to see cancer get the best of him, because when you were around Bobby Schilling you would have thought he would live forever.”
LaHood served in the Illinois Senate representing part of the Quad Cities from 2011 to 2015 before being elected to Congress to represent Illinois’ 18th Congressional District. LaHood worked on Schilling’s unsuccessful 2012 re-election campaign, and before that worked with Schilling on transportation and agriculture issues while serving in the Illinois Senate.
He and other colleagues praised Schilling for his work supporting veterans.
Congress in 2014 passed a bill written and first introduced by Schilling in 2011 to expand access to medical care by veterans.
The legislation gives veterans the ability to use their own doctors in their own hometowns when VA wait lists prevent veterans from getting immediate access to care.
Schilling’s father was a veteran, and he would often have to drive his father an hour to the Iowa City VA Health Care System to see a doctor, Terry Schilling said.
LaHood said Schilling will fondly be remembered as “a reflection of the American Dream.”
“People could really relate to Bobby” because of his work ethic, genuineness, sincerity, strong faith and optimism, LaHood said. “Those are the things that propelled him.”
Born in Rock Island, Bobby Schilling worked as a machine operator out of high school. He served as a union steward and later became a financial planning consultant before following his brother and father into the restaurant business.
Political career started with Tea Party wave
Bobby Schilling opened Saint Giuseppe’s Heavenly Pizza in Moline in 1996 before becoming part of the GOP Tea Party wave that swept through Congress during the 2010 midterm elections, unseating incumbent Democrat U.S. Rep. Phil Hare by a roughly 10-point margin.
“He was really trying to go to the forgotten voters of that district that had been taken for granted,” Terry Schilling said.
Bobby Schilling at the time said he decided to run for Congress because he had heard then-President Barack Obama say that he wanted to “spread the wealth around” and that, as a small business owner who had put in years of hard work, he didn’t want to share “his money.”
Schilling ran on a populist message promising to change Washington political culture. He declined to accept a congressional pension, pay raises and congressional health insurance benefits, and agreed to limit himself to four terms.
He would go on to serve only one term in Congress representing Illinois’ 17th District from 2011 to 2013. He lost his bid for a second term to U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline, in November 2012 after the district was redrawn. He challenged Bustos again in 2014 and lost.
Schilling moved to LeClaire in 2017 and became a resident of Iowa, making him eligible to run for Congress in Iowa’s 2nd District.
He was defeated by Mariannette Miller-Meeks in the June primary to become the Republican nominee. Miller-Meeks would go on to win the seat by a historic six-vote margin.
“Bobby Schilling was a devoted family man, a person of deep faith, and a true patriot,” Miller-Meeks said in a statement. “Bobby proved himself to be a hard-working, focused and worthy opponent. His love for his wife and children shined through in all his conversations.”
Schilling often teamed with Democratic former Iowa U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, whose district bordered Schilling’s, to advocate for the Rock Island Arsenal and obtain funding for construction of the new Interstate 74 bridge. The two collaborated frequently, even though they seldom saw eye to eye beyond local projects.
“When Bobby came to office, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go between the two of us, as you might imagine,” Loebsack said. “As it turned out, I think we both took a practical approach ... where we put aside the differences that we had, and they were many ... and worked on those where we had common ground and issues that were important to both sides of the river.”
Some political activities drew criticism
Schilling and his family, though, have been criticized for their ties to far-right politics.
Terry Schilling is president of the American Principles Project, described by Schilling as an “NRA for family values.” The Virginia-based conservative think tank and its PAC oppose same-sex marriage and funded an anti-transgender political ad campaign ahead of the 2020 elections.
Bobby Schilling also drew media scrutiny in late 2019 when white nationalist Nick Fuentes appeared at an immigration forum where Bobby Schilling also spoke. Fuentes advocated for a “monoculture” during his remarks and Bobby Schilling later denounced him.
The family’s pizza business — no longer under his control — was also called out this summer for flouting state health guidelines and restrictions developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and for social media posts criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement.
Terry Schilling, however, recounted stories of his father providing free meals to people who were out of work and couldn’t afford to pay their bills, including declining to charge a woman who repeatedly bounced checks at the restaurant.
“There were dozens of stories like that of him going out of his way to help people like that,” Terry Schilling said. “He just kept giving and giving to the very end. He’s an example that even the little guy can start off small and end up great and impact thousands of lives if they’re honest, kind and hard working. That’s what he represents and what his story tells.”