US Rep. Schock plays fine in Peoria despite controversies

AP News
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Posted: Feb 06, 2015 7:20 PM
US Rep. Schock plays fine in Peoria despite controversies

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock's lavish office decorations patterned after "Downton Abbey" don't play nearly as badly in Peoria as in Washington, D.C.

The 33-year-old Republican returned home Friday after calls for an ethics investigation over the extravagant decoration of his Congressional office inspired by the castle in the popular PBS show. And a top Schock adviser resigned this week after racist remarks on his Facebook page surfaced.

"Will it play in Peoria?" has long been a question that the rich and powerful ask to gauge what average Americans think.

At least initially, the answer to Schock from his blue-collar hometown surrounded by farms and often portrayed as middle America — was a shrug.

During a two-hour event open to questions, not a single constituent asked about the decorations or the racist remarks by a staffer. Instead, they peppered him with questions about pending trade agreements taxes and regulations.

The event showed a disparity between the mocking of interior design tastes in Washington, and his popularity back home, where he won re-election with over 70 percent of the vote in both 2012 and 2014.

"People are happy with the decisions he's made, his support for agriculture," said Debbie Streitmatter, a grain farmer from nearby Princeville, who describes watching Schock rise from a 19-year-old school board candidate to the state Legislature and later Congress. "There are bigger issues out there than the color of his office walls."

Schock said Friday he hopes his constituents understand he is "the same person today that was elected seven years ago" and that criticism comes with the territory.

"My constituents know me and they know my character," he said.

At the same time, he's shown some contrition for the events of the week.

"I'll be the first to say that could have been handled much better," he told reporters.

A watchdog group requested an ethics inquiry over the decorations, after the Washington Post published a story about the design work donated by Jacksonville, Illinois interior decorator Annie Brahler. The office has vivid red walls, elaborate sconces and a Federal-style bull's eye mirror.

U.S. House rules broadly prohibit members of Congress from accepting gifts or services valued at more than $50, but there are exemptions, including one that allows gifts from personal friends.

Schock told ABC News Wednesday that he paid Brahler with a personal check to decorate his office four years ago and will pay her again this year once he receives an invoice.

The Post also reported that Schock's communications director, Benjamin Cole, prevented the newspaper from taking photos of the office's interior.

Cole resigned Thursday after liberal website Think Progress Thursday published posts from Cole's personal Facebook page that included comments mocking two black people outside his Washington Apartment.

Schock Friday called those postings "unacceptable" and said he took quick action to address the problem the same day he learned of them.

During his four terms in Congress, Schock has become well known for his frequent use of the photo sharing app Instagram to document his travels, as well as a 2011 shirtless appearance on the cover of Men's Health Magazine.

Beef cattle farmer Dean Doughty of Brimfield called this week's stories "much ado about nothing."

"We want to feed people, make a living," Doughty said. "He's not stupid, he listens to us."

Still, others suggested they were less than pleased at the attention the Congressman was receiving.

"I think he'll get over this," said Christine Blouch, a Peoria resident and English professor at Bradley University, Schock's alma mater. "But he clearly has image issues. I wish he wasn't so concerned with that."

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Follow Kerry Lester on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kerrylester