Heard on the Hill

Rep. Rodney Davis Recalls Lessons From His Staffer Days

Illinois Republican was longtime projects director for Rep. John Shimkus

Rep. Rodney Davis talks about a picture of himself, fellow Illinois Rep. John Shimkus and former Vice President Dan Quayle, taken when Davis worked in Shimkus’ office. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Rodney Davis was a staffer in fellow Republican Rep. John Shimkus’ Illinois office before running for Congress.

Davis, now 48, worked for Shimkus for 16 years.

He shared with us what he learned about going from staffer to member.

Q: What was your position in Shimkus’ office?

A: The same position I had on Day One is the position I left with when I became a candidate for Congress in 2012. I was projects director out of the district office. My job was to be kind of the head community liaison with all the local leaders. I also did all the finance work and budget and personnel work that normally you would see done by a finance representative out here, … which is another reason why I love serving on the House Administration Committee because a lot of the things I didn’t like about some of the processes … now I get to actually change and make better.

I would ask questions, why did we have to do it this way? And the response I’d get from somebody out in D.C. was, ‘Well, this is the way we’ve always done it.’ Now, no one tells me that anymore.

A week after I graduated college in 1992, I met John Shimkus, who was running for Congress against Dick Durbin. I worked his race and at the same time took an internship with the state of Illinois and John lost so I kept in contact with him. In 1996, he ran for the open seat when Durbin ran for Senate, I ran for the state House at the same time. I lost, John won and John asked me to come work for him.

RD with Shimkus (2)
Davis, center, poses with Shimkus, right, and former New York Rep. Bill Paxon (Courtesy Rep. Rodney Davis)

Q: At what point did you decide you wanted to run?

A: When I had just run for the state House and lost, I probably thought … I may run again someday but I got more engaged in the political side, helping others as I grew into my career. Sixteen years later and I didn’t think I’d want to run, let alone have the opportunity to run for Congress. In 2010, I actually ran the Republican get-out-the-vote program for the entire state, and that’s where I got a chance to meet Adam Kinzinger, Bob Dold, Randy Hultgren, Joe Walsh and Bobby Schilling.

Fast forward to 2012, I was just about to begin the process of running the victory program again … and the Democrats drew a new map. [Former Rep. Timothy V. Johnson] decided after he won the primary to withdraw from the ballot. The guy who ended up being my campaign manager, who was working for Sen. [Mark S.] Kirk at the time, calls me, “Hey, I hear Tim Johnson’s going to retire.” I said, “What? We’re working for him. We want to make sure we win this seat. It’s a marginal district now.” And he gave me that fateful question, “Why don’t you think about running?”

I can remember getting a call from John a couple days later. In typical Shimkus fashion — he’s not the most patient man — “Rodney?” “Yes, Congressman?” “I hear you’re thinking about putting your name in for that Johnson seat.” He goes, “I think you should do it. This is the best time and there’s no better time to put your name out there. Oh, by the way, I have a meeting, I gotta go.” Click. To have his support in this process was essential.

(Courtesy Davis)
Davis, as a staffer, helped Shimkus introduce his project to work on Illinois' Route 29 in 1998. (Courtesy Rep. Rodney Davis)
(Courtesy Davis)
Davis and Shimkus celebrate the completion of the Route 29 project in 2017. (Courtesy Rep. Rodney Davis)

Q: What did you learn from him that you bring to your career?

A: [Davis recalled hearing Shimkus tell Dan Quayle that he wouldn’t endorse him for president.] To be able to tell a former vice president that I’m sorry, I can’t endorse you, I’m going to endorse Gov. [George W.] Bush because I think he’s a better candidate and that told me a lot about John because he’s not afraid to express how he feels on any given situation. It taught me a lot about — be confident in your decisions and people will respect you.

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 06: Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., left, and his legislative correspondent David Ross, are seen in their Longworth Building office on February 6, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Davis works with his legislative correspondent David Ross. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Q: What perspective do you have now toward your staffers?

A: I was warned that former staffers either go two ways. They’re either going to micromanage or they’re going to, like in my case, focus too much on the areas where I came from. So you lose that district-D.C. balance that you need. I think a lot of folks assumed from my background in the district, from knowing me as a micromanager, that I would micromanage a lot of my issues and I had to really learn to focus my new team.

Watch: Office Space — Rodney Davis’ Illinois Campus

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