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“I don’t like this place.”
Just as Rep. Steve Southerland frankly states his view of Washington’s political culture, he proves it a moment later by opting out of a press conference with fellow Republicans because he knew speakers would be arranged alphabetically. It just wasn’t worth his time to wait for a turn at the podium, he said.
Like many of the freshmen ushered in by frustrated voters last fall, Southerland stresses he did not come to Washington, D.C., to make friends.
The Florida Republican, in the cadence of a Southern preacher, will explain the importance of reducing federal regulations and supporting small businesses. But he has no desire to connect to the Beltway culture, and he boasts that he gets political advice in a seemingly unlikely place.
“When I go home on the weekends, and put on my flip-flops and my shorts and my John Deere hat, I go to Walmart,” he said. “I don’t need to hear from a political prognosticator on what I need to do or how I need to do it. I go to Walmart.”
A funeral home owner, Southerland has no previous legislative experience — he served only briefly on a Florida funeral directors board during the 1990s. He said he leans on his staff for learning the legislative process.
But Southerland, with his desired disconnect from Washington, has felt escalating heat from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has made him a prime target as the party attempts to win back control of the House. Democrats have criticized his lack of legislation, conservative voting record and some comments he made recently in his district about his salary not being something to write home about.
But Southerland won’t let up and said he is in Washington to speak for his constituents. When asked to leave his Agriculture and Natural Resources committees for another post, “I said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ Somebody here needs to fight for farmers. Somebody here needs to fight for fishermen,” he said.
Without hesitation, Southerland explains that he ran for Congress because of what he experienced while on the job.
“We’ve had, just in our funeral home, numerous, numerous individuals that have taken their lives over the last few years because of the economic situation in this country,” he said. “So when you go home, and you see that, and you see the hurt and the pain, and you come up here, it infuriates you.”
“Infuriates” is a word Southerland uses often — three times in less than an hour.
He represents a northern Florida district that skims the state’s Big Bend on the Gulf of Mexico. With all or part of 16 counties, it is boosted by tourism and farming, including oystering. That makes his three committees — Agriculture, Natural Resources and Transportation and Infrastructure — relevant to his conservative-leaning constituents.