Louisiana’s First Congressional District seems to be the nation’s best current political birthplace for rising conservative stars. Fresh off of its pride at boasting of conservative hero Bobby Jindal, now Louisiana’s governor, the First District has elected another superb conservative reformer, Steve Scalise, as Jindal’s replacement in Congress. The conservative movement ought to take note, because Scalise is the “real deal,” a legislator who not only talks a good game but also follows through and makes good things happen.
Scalise gives an immediate impression, an accurate one, of competence and industriousness. For whatever a firsthand observation is worth, I met Scalise back in 1989, just once (with I think one follow-up phone call), when I was state chairman of Louisiana’s Young Republicans and Scalise was speaker of Louisiana State University’s student assembly. It’s rare for two brief conversations to leave a strong impression, but Scalise was so impressive at the time that I told people he had a future in politics; and, a full six years later when I was a congressional press secretary and I heard Scalise was running for the state Legislature back home, I immediately started rooting for him long distance.
It was then, right at the start of his race, that the 29-year-old Scalise — a computer programmer by trade and later a computer systems engineer — made an appointment with Rick Legendre, the longtime district representative for then-U.S. House Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston. Legendre now explains that he barely even knew who Scalise was, but was perfectly willing to give him campaign advice.
“He asked me to give him ten things he needed to do if he wanted to win the race, and I did,” Legendre says, adding that all his recommendations required substantial amounts of work. “I thought that would be the end of it. But about two weeks later he was knocking on my door again, saying, ‘Okay, I’ve done those things — now what else do I need to do?”
Scalise used no paid media in the campaign, but he so outworked his opponents that he won 68 percent of the vote in a three-person field. Almost immediately, he began to make a mark as a strongly conservative and, surprisingly for his youth, superbly savvy legislator.
STEPHEN GELE, THE CURRENT general counsel for the Young Republican National Federation, is from New Orleans, not far from Scalise’s suburban district. Gele met Scalise at a New Orleans Young Republican event in 1996 and Scalise joined a group of YRs for pizza afterwards. Over pizza, Gele filled Scalise in on what would soon become a very public family crisis.
“My family had owned a sporting goods store since 1948,” Gele said. “We barely even dealt in guns; I think we had sold just five handguns the previous year.”
But Mayor Marc Morial, who filed suit on the city’s behalf against gun manufacturers in what the trial bar hoped would be the new equivalent of the windfall they earned through suing tobacco companies, needed a local defendant in order to keep the suit before a pliant local jury rather than in a far-off federal court. Gele’s father’s store was small enough that it wasn’t likely to afford an expensive defense, so Morial picked on it rather than a big-box outfit.
“Basically the lawsuit alleged, in effect, that my dad was responsible for every murder in New Orleans,” Gele said — all because of the sale of five guns.
The very next day, Scalise’s legislative aide called Gele to say Scalise had already drawn up legislation to get rid of the suit by amending the state’s product liability act. Yes, the next day. And Scalise was able to push the bill through the Legislature within a month; it was upheld by the state Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, thus letting the new law stand. Needless to say, Gele has been a Scalise fan ever since.
“Steve is someone who is willing to take a stand, to go out on a limb… to face hostile opposition… but he’s not a hothead, not one to shoot from the hip,” Gele said. “He has a reputation for being able to take an issue, move it forward, and get constructive action on it…. Lots of guys can go to a microphone and blurt out rhetoric, but not a lot can get a bill passed that is meaningful that actually changes policy. Steve is one of them, an excellent legislator.”
TONY PERKINS, NOW PRESIDENT of the Family Research Council, entered the Louisiana legislature the same day as Scalise. “I worked with him on almost everything,” Perkins said. “It was so natural to see Steve working with me on so many issues. He was always there. I cannot recall a time when he and I were on different sides of an issue. I would say that he was effective all the way around. He was effective at working with others. You’ve got to do the follow-up work and work well with people, and he was well liked by everybody. He gets along with people. Very effective one on-one.”
Scalise’s predecessor Quentin Dastugue, a well-known conservative reformer who made an unsuccessful run for governor after three terms in the state House, also had good words for Scalise. “What struck me,” Dastugue told me, “was he was always pure to his conservative ideals. And he showed a maturity kind of rare in younger people entering public office.”
After 12 years in office, Scalise indeed had the record of a conservative superstar. He repeatedly fought against higher taxes, usually successfully. He authored a bill creating incentives for movie companies to film in Louisiana, which now has made the state third in the nation (according to Scalise) in the number of films produced in state. He led the fight for earmark reform in the state, with full disclosure and a searchable online database. He was the lead co-author of Louisiana’s ban on partial birth abortions, passed as a direct and immediate response to the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision upholding the congressional ban on the practice. Finally, he was the lead author of the state’s 2004 constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and woman; it passed with 78 percent of the vote in a statewide referendum, and was subsequently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I’ve always been a conservative first,” Scalise told me in an interview in his Capitol Hill office on June 12. “I think Republicans in Congress had moved away from their core principles of less government, lower taxes, more individual freedom…. If we are going to get our majority back, we are going to have to take our party back by re-establishing core principles.”
He later added: “If Republicans are going in the wrong direction, I am still willing to stand up against them.”
ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS Scalise did upon being sworn in this spring was to join the conservative Republican Study Committee, whose research he had used during his special-election campaign to fill Jindal’s empty seat. He was assigned to the Natural Resources Committee — a good spot, since he already had anticipated the current energy-price problem by long ago making a push for more drilling one of his signature issues.
“We also need to expedite the permitting process for refineries,” he told me. On that issue, and on drilling, and on other energy-related issues, Scalise said he is eager to take the fight to liberal Democrats: “They [Democratic leaders] are scared to death on this issue and they don’t want their members to vote on it. Nancy Pelosi has her head in the sand on this issue and it’s going to catch up with them. Right now, their only response was to sue OPEC!”
Yet with all his enthusiasm and boldness, Scalise does not wear a big ego on his sleeve. Both Legendre (Livingston’s top aide) and Gele, independently, volunteered that, in Gele’s words, “He is very good about not having an inflated ego, and at constructively taking criticism. He’s always one who acts on the warning to not believe your own press releases.”
Said Legendre: “He’s one of those elected officials who never considers himself above those he governs.”
Legendre added this prediction, a prediction quite believable to almost anyone who has watched Scalise’s career so far: “I think we’re looking at one of the next great conservative leaders in this country. I truly believe that. I think it’s only a matter of time before the Sean Hannitys of the world start using his name.”