Jason Plummer is an avid history buff.
Whenever he has the chance, the Fairview Heights businessman immerses himself in books and movies about American history, especially military history.
"You would not believe the number of books he has in his room," said Judy Verseman, Plummer's guidance counselor at Edwardsville High School, where he graduated in 2001. "The military history, all the presidents, and he read all of them. That's what amazed me."
Both of Plummer's grandfathers served in the Army.
"He had their uniforms hanging on hangers," said Verseman, recalling a visit to the Edwardsville house Plummer shared at the time with his parents.
During an interview at his campaign office, Plummer thought for a moment about why history means so much to him.
"I really have a profound respect for where our nation came from and where it's been," Plummer said. "And I appreciate that."
Now, Plummer, the Republican nominee for the 12th Congressional District seat, is trying to make a little history of his own. He is seeking a congressional seat that's been in Democratic hands for 68 years, first by the venerable Mel Price, of East St. Louis, and then the longtime representative from Belleville, Jerry Costello.
If Plummer, 30, wins, he will become the youngest member of Congress, displacing U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, 31, a Republican from Peoria.
The stakes are high, as this is one of the most closely watched congressional races in the nation. The race is one of 22 House elections across the country that the New York Times is calling a toss-up.
Plummer has based his campaign on voter unhappiness with the 12th District's unemployment rate of more than 10 percent, which is 2 percentage points higher than the national average.
During public appearances and debates with his rivals, Plummer has positioned himself as a social conservative who is against abortion and new taxes, and for business growth, especially the revitalization of the state's coal industry -- something he would like to jump-start by rolling back environmental regulations that he believes hinder coal production.
During his stump speeches, Plummer is quick to point out that Southern Illinois is blessed with abundant reserves of coal, oil and gas, but, in his view, 12th District residents are prevented from profiting from these resources because of intrusive federal regulations.
"My No. 1 goal when I get to Washington, D.C., is pretty simple," Plummer told an audience recently. "We need to get the federal government out of the way of the American people. We need to allow the American people to do what they do best. ... I'm very passionate about making sure we provide an opportunity where the American people can pursue their dreams."
Plummer and his small staff have logged a lot of hours this summer in a blue Dodge 4x4 pickup, criss-crossing the district's 12 counties to meet voters at a wide range of venues. Plummer figures he's put more than 50,000 miles on the pickup on this mission.
Clearly, the GOP rank-and-file believe he is the man for the job, as evidenced by the reception he received during Republican Day at the Du Quoin State Fair.
As shadows of a late August evening crawled across the tent where more than 200 Republican faithful gathered, all eyes followed Plummer's 6-foot 8-inch frame as he strode to the lectern.
A platoon of GOP incumbents and challengers for office had preceded him in their speech-making, but the applause for Plummer, the last candidate to speak, was by far the loudest.
Plummer, in a rousing voice, slammed Democratic policies that, he said, have led to the 12th District's chronically high unemployment, and to burdensome regulations that have kept Southern Illinois coal mines closed.
"And everybody says Washington is not listening to me," Plummer told the crowd. "They're not talking about the issues that negatively impact us. 'I am under-represented and I am overtaxed.' And I guarantee you, the folks in this tent, feel that way. We're hoping to change it. But we're all going to change it together Nov. 6."
To achieve this goal, Plummer must defeat Bill Enyart, the Democratic nominee from Belleville, and Green Party candidate Paula Bradshaw, of Carbondale.
In Nov., 2010, at age 28, Plummer was less than 1 percentage point from becoming Illinois' lieutenant governor. He won the GOP primary for lieutenant governor after raising $1.44 million -- with 92 percent of that sum donated by Plummer and companies linked to his father.
Robert L. Plummer owns the 44-store R.P. Lumber chain. The senior Plummer also is chairman of The Bank of Edwardsville and a real estate developer who has built subdivisions and shopping malls across the state.
In May, Jason Plummer reported a personal worth of between $13.6 million and $33.1 million, according to financial disclosure reports filed with the U.S. House.
Enyart and the national Democratic Party have depicted Plummer as an out-of-touch and inexperienced millionaire's son.
Plummer has challenged that characterization, pointing to his independent business success and understanding of middle-class struggles.
Plummer said his pursuit of elective office springs from the state's poor economic climate.
"If the unemployment rate were 6 percent and people were doing well, I wouldn't be running for office," he said. "But people aren't doing well. People are hurting.
"Southern Illinois needs new leadership to help create jobs and return prosperity to the region."
Minding the store
Jason Plummer was born in Staunton, the site of his father's first lumberyard, but he grew up in Edwardsville, which is outside the 12th District.
A year ago, before filing to enter the 12th District GOP primary, Plummer moved to Fairview Heights, placing him inside the district. Members of Congress are not required to live in the districts they represent.
Robert Plummer, who insists on being called Bob, said he wanted his two daughters and their little brother to work in the store as a way of instilling in them the right values.
"He and his sisters, all of them, their day care was the lumberyard," Bob Plummer said. "They were here since they could walk.
"Hopefully, they really understood responsibility and some ethics," he said. "And I think that's one of the reasons they are all pretty good at talking to and communicating with people. Because they all would help people on the showroom floor, they'd help people outside."
For all his success as an entrepreneur, Bob Plummer comes across as down-to-earth and humble. His office in the R.P. Lumber store in Edwardsville is spare and functional, with the door open to anyone who walks by.
A high school history teacher and sports coach in the Hazelwood School District in St. Louis County, Bob Plummer started his first lumberyard in 1977 -- a business he knew something about since his father ran a small lumberyard in Litchfield.
"It was very small. We didn't have a forklift, we didn't have anything," he said. "It was just hand-to-mouth."
Aside from being a hard worker, Jason was a thoughtful young man, Bob Plummer recalled.
Even as a small child, "he always thought a lot. I don't know how to explain that," he said. "He'd be in his room maybe for an hour, when he was a little baby, he'd be awake, but he wouldn't be crying."
As the years rolled by, Jason Plummer developed passions for baseball, football and basketball, sports he played at Edwardsville High. He also took part in a wide variety of extra-curricular activities, including the National Honor Society, Drug Abuse Resistance Education and a group called ALPHA, in which he made presentations to grade school students about drug abuse and anger management.
"He wasn't really in a clique, per se," recalled Verseman, his high school guidance counselor. "He mixed with everybody, and the teachers respected him."
Verseman described Plummer as "the type of kid who said if he was going do something he would do it. You know how high school kids will say, 'I'll do it,' then something better comes up. He was never like that."
Plummer enrolled at the University of Illinois, where he majored in finance and took part in the Army Reserve Officers Training Course program. He helped pay his way by working in the R.P. Lumber store in nearby Champaign.
A series of sports injuries -- including an ankle broken during a pick-up basketball game in college -- kept him out of the active-duty military. In 2005, he served an internship with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., then four years later joined the Naval Reserves, where he trained as an intelligence officer. He remains in the Reserves today with the rank of lieutenant junior grade and trains at Scott Air Force Base.
Plummer is listed as a director or managing member of five businesses, including a real estate brokerage firm called ROI Realty Partners, with offices in Edwardsville and west St. Louis County, according to his disclosure statement.
Plummer said some of the lessons he has learned from the business world include "that a promise made is a promise kept, and all you have is your handshake and your word, and you are only as good as your word," he said.
He has learned the importance of making "a payroll and have families depend on him." He also said that at the end of the day, whether in business or in Congress, the budget must balance."
Answering the call
Plummer acknowledged that running for office is a lot of hard work, but he said it is an important calling.
"We live in a great community. Because people, not everybody, but a lot of people put the public interest above the self-interest," he said. "And I think that you want to make sure you contribute to this great society that we have."
The contributions can be in the form of coaching a Little League team or serving on a city council, he said.
"People just need to be involved," he said. "And I think if you look at the problems we're facing right now, we need a lot of people that are involved. Anybody can sit back and try to take care of themselves, but I think it's fairly a shallow life to live. I think you should contribute to society as well."