Seventeen years ago, a fast-rising young politician sat in my office at the Clark County Government Center as baffled as the rest of us by the emerging revelations that the president of the United States had engaged in oral and phone sex with a beret-loving intern. “How,” Dario Herrera asked, the agony and anger of being let down by a hero clear in his face and voice, “could he have been so stupid?”
Herrera, of course, would go on to be disappointing, too. At the time, he was about to become the youngest person elected to the Clark County Commission after having been the youngest person in the Nevada Assembly. He was handsome, charming and smart, the vanguard of a new generation of Hispanic men and women aspiring to American leadership. He was going places.
Very soon, it turned to ashes. He took kickbacks from strip-club owner Michael Galardi in exchange for his vote. He would be convicted and sent to federal prison. Once synonymous with potential and promise, his name became a cautionary tale for other fast-tracked young Nevada hotshots.
That all came to mind this week as Congressman Aaron Schock, the 33-year-old Republican from Peoria, announced his resignation under a gathering cloud of malfeasance allegations. Schock, like Herrera, enjoyed early and fast success in politics thanks to a combination of sumptuous good looks, preternatural charisma and an uncanny instinct for political opportunism. He, too, had sycophants telling him how far he would rise—Herrera was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. House in 2002 and like Schock, could have been in Congress before age 30—but allowed hubristic recklessness to short-circuit it all. Questions swirl about lavish trips and sloppy expense reports, so Schock’s legal future could be as imperiled as his political one is dead.
“I definitely identify with that fast rise and fast fall,” says Herrera, now a 41-year-old father of three who sports a scraggly, white-flecked beard. “I know how I felt to have let down the people who put so much trust in me. I know how I felt to let down my wife, my kids, my family and the folks who were early supporters of me. That’s gotta be going through his head, how with all the tools he had, with his life success and ambition, how he went from going places and now it turned very quickly. He’s doing a lot of reflection right now.”
Maybe, although perhaps not yet. After all, Herrera took the stand in his corruption trial every bit as arrogant and in denial as he was when he did his misdeeds. It was in prison, he says, that he finally came to terms with how it all went south and what it would take to build a life worthy of respect again. Until Schock can understand why his awesome life just collapsed, Herrera says, he’ll be stuck.
Most important is figuring out where the instinct for self-sabotage comes from, Herrera says. He had a chaotic, impoverished upbringing in Miami in which his mother had a succession of mates who were abusive and cruel. When Herrera was 15, one stepfather forced him to move out and fend for himself. A basketball coach guided him through high school and on to college at UNLV, but Herrera never shook that emotional and material neediness. When others began to see political potential in him, he says, the flattery was irresistible.
“I had never been shown that kind of attention ever in my life,” he says of the folks who asked him to run for the Nevada Assembly at 22. Also, he was really good at it. “It did come easy, and there was this underlying feeling that I wasn’t worthy of the responsibility I’ve been given. Now I can see why I couldn’t do the right thing when I had the opportunity ... It was also easy to become intoxicated with the influence, the power and the attention.”
But how do people like Herrera and Schock lose themselves so thoroughly? “It’s the slow erosion of integrity and it’s a process of rationalization,” Herrera says. “You think you can take money and take favors and remain effective. That’s the story I told myself quite a bit, that I could play the game and people could give me huge amounts of money—and I’m not just talking about illegal money but huge campaign contributions, too—and think that I could remain effective because I was smarter than them or I knew right from wrong. It happens very slowly and very unmistakably.”
Herrera now owns a social-media strategy firm and is married to the sister of rap superstar Pitbull, one of the company’s key clients. He moved away from Vegas for a time after his 29-month prison stint, but he’s back now so he can be near his three kids and do volunteer work with at-risk youth. His reinvention, it seems, can be a template for Schock.
“Don’t forget that there are things to still be grateful for and things to look forward to even if it’s not what you thought it would look like,” Herrera advises. “Deal with what is versus what should have been. Take it one day at a time and live your life so well that when people meet you, what you’ve done before or your reputation that precedes you doesn’t meet their expectation of you.”