"To go to the grocery store and get a gallon of milk takes me two or three hours,” said Rep. Steve Southerland, and you definitely believe him. Southerland isn’t the world’s slowest shopper. His grocery stops are constantly interrupted by people he knows through the family business, a network of funeral homes in the panhandle of Florida.
Undertaker is not on most “best jobs” lists, but Southerland actually misses his work back home. His grandparents lived at the funeral home, and as a kid he stayed there Friday nights. When he was growing up, everybody around town would spontaneously hug his dad.
“You get to know people at a very intense moment of their life. You just are grafted into their family,” Southerland said. “If you love helping people, and you love trying to bring comfort and peace to their life at a very, very difficult time, you’re going to have to look pretty hard to find a profession that gives you more opportunities than the funeral business.”
Southerland is the kind of person who pours boundless energy into engaging with people. Newt Gingrich once told me I had seven minutes for a phone interview; Southerland is more likely to turn a short chat into an hourlong conversation.
He is surprisingly earnest for Washington, D.C.—even for a congressman elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, the year a lot of unlikely characters ended up on Capitol Hill. A deeply religious Christian, Southerland says he prays about all his major decisions and talks often and openly about what God says back.
He has a tendency to speak in strings of truisms, like this: “I believe in process. I believe in four seasons. I believe that winter’s tough, but spring’s coming. I believe that there’s a growing season. And I think that you realize that in life you grow. You get better.”
At his baby-blue brick townhouse a three-minute walk from the Capitol, Southerland plays host to his Tea Party friends. The events, often graced with the Bayou-style cooking of former congressman Jeff Landry, Southerland’s close friend, have been dubbed the “Cajun Caucus.”
Southerland was recently elected the sophomore class representative, an unexpected turn that came when former senator Jim DeMint resigned and Rep. Tim Scott, the previous class representative, was appointed to fill DeMint’s seat in the Senate.
The Florida Republican, a fierce conservative who butted heads with leadership in the last Congress, now sits alongside Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor at meetings to determine GOP strategy in the House.
So far, the result has been a boost in trust on both sides. Southerland doesn’t hold back. Instead, he gives top Republicans a real, live Tea Party conservative to bounce ideas off. Meanwhile, the 2010 class gets a window into leadership’s deliberations.
“I give him a lot of credit for the conference being more united,” said Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.
Southerland’s story is the tale not just of the Tea Party class coming of political age, but also of the chaos and conflict of the fiscal cliff battle actually strengthening the GOP conference.
Two months later, it’s easy to forget what an ugly episode the fight over the fiscal cliff was for the House GOP. As Southerland put it, it was a “time of aggravation.”
“Everybody’s kind of ill from the election still. Everybody was on edge. There was this general feeling that we just got the tar kicked out of us and we want to make sure that we get back in the game,” Southerland said. “You start analyzing. You start saying, ‘Okay, what do we need to do different?’ ”
On January 1, tax cuts from the George W. Bush era were due to expire and automatic “sequestration” cuts were to begin. Boehner had tried to put tax increases on the table in secret talks with Obama, only to suddenly pull back to his “Plan B,” which he then withdrew for lack of GOP support in a spectacularly humiliating episode.
On New Year’s Eve, as senators hashed out a deal that would enrage the House, Southerland’s usual group had come for an unexpected session of the Cajun Caucus. Ron Meyer Jr., the 23-year-old activist who launched the Twitter hashtag #FireBoehner, showed up somehow, and there was furtive talk of a coup to unseat the speaker. Southerland, who hadn’t invited Meyer, worried about appearances. He directed another guest to ask Meyer to leave.