May 18, 2024

Opinion

Reeder: Former congressman overcame struggle with drug addiction

Scott Reeder

The congressman was a crack addict.

When I heard those words, I was flummoxed. It’s not that I found it difficult to believe that someone in public life had a substance abuse problem.

During my 35 years covering politics, I’ve seen politicians drunk while debating legislation. And I’ve seen them holed up in their offices drinking when they were supposed to be legislating.

But the phone call I had last week from Terry Schilling, a son of former U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, left me stunned. He said his dad spent much of the 1980s hooked on crack cocaine.

I was astonished because I had never heard even a whisper of this when he was running for and holding public office. And campaigns are when the klieg lights come on and skeletons come dancing out of the closets.

“My dad was a recovering drug addict and a recovering alcoholic. He was always very private about it because he didn’t want to be defined by the mistakes of his past. He wanted people to judge him for what he had become and his accomplishments,” Terry said.

I can appreciate the congressman wanting to keep his past quiet. But what amazes me is that he succeeded.

In 2010, Bobby Schilling, a Republican, defeated incumbent Democrat Phil Hare by 10 points in the 17th Congressional District, which then twisted across western and central Illinois. Two years later Schilling lost reelection to Democrat Cheri Bustos and she beat him again in a 2014 rematch.

Every campaign has whispers. Labels like “skirt chaser,” “drunk” or “in the closet” are affixed to candidates as if they were third graders with “kick me” signs stuck to their backs.

But with Schilling the only whisper I heard was “family guy.”

Schilling presented himself to voters as a hardworking father of 10 who owned a Moline pizzeria.

At the time I thought Schilling was smarmy. But if smarminess were an impeachable offense, Congress would never have a quorum.

My dad once heard him speak and thought he was the most swell politician ever. He won him over by telling him how much he admired his son’s column. (So maybe he should have worn the label “shameless.”)

Neither I, nor as far as I know, any other reporter, had a clue about Schilling’s darker past.

“He was in high school when the crack epidemic was happening and they really suckered these young guys into it. … This is before we really knew how bad crack was for people and how addictive it was. And he just got caught up.”

A pregnant Christie Schilling, would haul Terry and two of his siblings from tavern to tavern looking for her husband, Bobby. He’d go missing for three days.

Finally, she gave Bobby an ultimatum: Her or the drugs.

Christie filed for divorce in Rock Island County but didn’t follow through after he cleaned up his act. She credited his recovery to a treatment program at the former Mercy Hospital in Davenport, Iowa, his Catholic faith and Narcotics Anonymous.

The Narcotics Anonymous meetings were a worry. What if someone attending a meeting broke a confidence?

“He had a lot of Democrat friends from NA. And politics makes people irrational and do things that they wouldn’t normally do,” Terry said.

While working on his father’s campaign Terry asked what their contingency plan should be if word of his past drug use leaked.

“I said, ‘You know, you could do the George [W.] Bush route where he really talked about this openly and used it as a positive thing for how he turned his life around. And he just, didn’t want to make [the campaign] about that. I said, ‘Well, what are you going to do if it gets brought up anyway?’ And he said we’d just acknowledge it, we’d tell the truth and we’d say, you know, that was stuff that I struggled with in my twenties and I turned my life around.”

After moving to LeClaire, Iowa, Bobby Schilling made another bid for Congress in 2020, this time in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District. But he was defeated in the GOP primary. He died in 2021 of intestinal cancer at age 57.

Both Christie and Terry said they want to inspire others with Bobby’s life. They are considering writing a book.

“He gave his life to God and his family,” Terry said. “And he died a former member of Congress, a successful business guy who everyone really loves. And he has ten kids surrounding his bedside praying for him and thanking God out loud for him when he dies.”

• Scott Reeder is a veteran journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area. His email is Scottreeder1965@gmail.com

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at: sreeder@illinoistimes.com.