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Daily Herald - Roskam's first year in D.C.

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Daily Herald - Roskam's first year in D.C.

Whirlwind day shows what life is like for Henry Hyde's successor

Marni Pyke

It's 10 a.m., and inside the Beltway the talk is of Iran, Cuba and the mortgage financing debacle.

But freshman U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam is focusing on the emerald ash borer.

The Wheaton Republican stands on the historic House floor of the U.S. Capitol and addresses the nation.

"It's a nasty little bug," Roskam says. "It doesn't just kill a majority of ash trees, it kills them all."

He's got them in the palm of his hand, then in mid-speech, a warning bell rings.

Roskam takes it in stride.

"I'm just getting used to the time limit," he explains. "When they recognize you for one minute, they recognize you for one minute."

They probably wouldn't do that to Henry Hyde. But Roskam's the first to admit he's not reached the stature of his iconic predecessor.

"Nobody can replace Henry Hyde," he says.

For now, Roskam picks his moments.

"You have to earn the right to be heard."

Rough start

One year ago today, Roskam was elected to the 6th Congressional District after a bruising campaign.

His opponent, Democrat Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran and current state official, had the help of such powerbrokers as U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Chicago and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

Roskam had the blessing of Hyde and a grassroots army of volunteers.

Both parties poured millions into the election, dispatched political stars to stump for the candidates, and launched attack ads.

In a year the Republicans lost the House and Senate, Roskam's rare GOP victory made him a standout.

But 15 minutes of fame will only take you so far when you're a freshman congressman in the minority.

What leads to a second term is never losing sight of the home front, Roskam believes.

And that's why he concentrated on the ash borer, a pest that's already been found in the collar counties, and one of myriad issues Roskam will consider this Oct. 24.

Day in the life

Roskam's morning started with a delegation from Famagusta, a town in Cyprus under Turkish control.

Mayor Alexis Galanos is doing the rounds of Congress seeking support for the rights of displaced Greek Cypriots.

In the next eight hours, Roskam will deal with Cyprus, invasive species, the mortgage crisis, national heritage areas, native Hawaiian rights, runaway children and a new challenge in the upcoming election.

"I find it invigorating when you move from one subject area to the other," he says. "You have to learn to multitask."

After his brief speech is done at 10:01 a.m., Roskam heads to the Rayburn Building for a hearing on reforming mortgage lending practices. It's his one committee, but a powerful one.

Inside, the avuncular Democrat Barney Frank presides; to his right is U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, a Hinsdale Republican.

While Biggert's years on the hill have earned her the best seat in the house, Roskam sits two rows down, wearing a gray suit, pink shirt and blue tie.

Roskam isn't convinced of the merit of the bill, which profiles more consumer protection and regulation.

"The bill standards are very subjective. My fear is you could get a group of people unfairly denied credit," he says, before jogging off to a vote on native heritage areas.

The House floor is much smaller than it appears during the State of the Union address. Congressmen mill about politicking, joking and talking shop while Roskam's nemesis in the 2006 election, Emanuel, glides about purposefully.

Roskam leans back in a seat, chatting with John Shimkus, a downstate Republican. When the vote is called, he votes "yes" using a key card.

When asked why, he explains the project is good for Illinois because it includes an Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area.

"There's half a dozen heritage sites around the country and one in central Illinois," he said.

On the airwaves

His vote registered, Roskam pops back into the financial services committee, then dashes over to the Republican National Committee headquarters. It's past noon and he's running late for a National Public Radio interview.

His chief of staff gave him a pedometer. "I found I walk 6 to 8 miles a day," he says.

Roskam slips on a set of headphones and prepares to record an ongoing series on NPR with another freshman congressman, Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords.

This time the topic is the upcoming election.

Roskam knows he'll likely face a bona fide opponent in Jill Morgenthaler, Gov. Rod Blagojevich's former homeland security adviser and a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel.

A longtime trial lawyer and state lawmaker, Roskam talks easily without notes.

"It's like suiting up for the next big game," he says.

Next on the agenda is a 2 p.m. news conference with Biggert on runaway children.

In addition to the Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus, Roskam also belongs to caucuses dealing with bicycles, suburban issues, Armenia, manufacturing, abortion prevention, recycling, Serbia and India.

At the news conference, Roskam's remarks are brief and he defers to the senior members.

"It's a staggering number," he says referring to the estimated 1.6 million to 2.8 million youths who run away every year.

The next move is back to the Capitol for another vote.

"I know a funky way back; it's by the cleaning supplies," Roskam says, charging up a winding staircase.

"I grew impatient waiting for the elevator so I followed a member of Congress who looked like he knew what he was doing."

Home base

Roskam's office is the freshman dorm on the fifth floor of the Cannon House Office Building, sandwiched between a Democrat from New Hampshire and a Republican from Idaho.

"Look at this view. It's the best part," says spokesman Matt Vriesema, pointing at the dome of the Capitol visible from the crowded staff quarters.

The Cannon building was a starting point for John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.

"People go far from here," legislative correspondent Dean Thompson said.

Vriesema, of Villa Park, and Thompson, who lives in Wheaton, started with Roskam's campaign as volunteers, sharing a tiny office. As congressional workers, they've exchanged jeans for suits and ties, but their enthusiasm is unabated.

As Roskam returns from the Capitol, two policy wonks from the Congressional Research Service are waiting for him.

They spend about an hour filling Roskam in on mortgages, then he runs into an old friend from the campaign. Diane Spiotta of Wheaton and her daughter, Marisa, are in town with other family members to tour D.C. That morning, they toured the White House.

"You know the man was there?" Roskam asks, referring to President Bush.

The daily schedule lists a staff meeting at 3 p.m., but it isn't until 5 p.m. when Roskam gathers with Vriesema, Thompson, his scheduler, legislative aides and chief of staff.

"What's cooking?" he says.

Topics du jour range from the concerns of local hospitals about the IRS to safety at O'Hare.

At the end of the meeting, staff members congratulate Roskam on making his 1,000th vote -- on rights for native Hawaiians.

"That's priceless," he says.

The day ends with dinner with three other congressmen.

Home is a basement brownstone within walking distance of Capitol Hill equipped with air mattresses for when his family visits. His wife, Elizabeth, estimates the most cooking that goes on in the apartment is ramen noodles.

In the last year, Roskam's sponsored seven bills, three amendments, and co-sponsored 152 measures.

His first floor speech was a successful amendment to the Advanced Fuels Infrastructure Research and Development Act that supported the development of alternative energy.

Like his young staff, Roskam says he still revels in the fact he's actually in Washington, D.C.

One night, while his eldest daughter, Gracie, was visiting, the two walked to Statuary Hall, which served as the former House of Representatives after 1850. They searched for the gold stars on the floor that indicate where former presidents sat.

"The luster is not lost," Roskam said.

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