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Freshman Steve Southerland Shuns Beltway Culture

“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.

Fighting Government

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.

For someone who wants to fight, Southerland chooses to do so with words more than with bills. He has yet to offer an amendment and has introduced one bill, which was tied to his professional background. The bill would clarify that certain prearranged funeral and burial arrangements were not to be considered assets under the Supplemental Security Income program, and it drew accusations from Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith that it was solely to benefit the Congressman’s funeral-home industry.

But that was a minor tiff compared to what happened to the freshman during the summer.

When Southerland suggested his $174,000-per-year salary was not overly generous, considering his security risks and time on the job, during a talk at a retirement community in his district, Democrats pounced.

The Tallahassee Democrat reported that he said: “If you think this job pays too much, with those kinds of risks and cutting me off from my family business, I’ll just tell you: This job don’t mean that much to me. I had a good life in Panama City.”

The remark is sure to appear in campaign ads, even if he didn’t mean it how it was interpreted by his rivals.

On the Hill, Southerland doesn’t shy away from the microphone, though he doesn’t rush toward it. He is not a frequent speaker on the House floor, but he has participated in a handful of network TV interviews.

He’s a co-founder of a Florida tea party group and joined the conservative Republican Study Committee when he arrived in Congress.

He voted against a final version of debt limit legislation in August, wanting more spending cuts and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. But one month later, he voted for a stopgap bill to keep the government running into fiscal 2012, legislation many tea-party-type Members opposed.

A fellow Floridian, Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R) said he can count Southerland as “very straightforward” and “dependable.”

“I’ve never had a problem with him on an issue,” Mica said. “He’s not one I have to worry about. He’s valuable to the state on the committee and definitely important to me.”

For transportation polices, Southerland wants to increase, or at least maintain, the return his state gets on infrastructure spending.

He calls the Environmental Protection Agency the “single greatest threat to free enterprise in America today,” and looking to the next farm bill, Southerland would like more attention for research, especially relating to some of Florida’s specialty crops.

Life’s Work in Funeral Home

Southerland, who turned 46 today, was born in Tennessee but has spent most of his life in Florida. The funeral-home business started by his grandfather was a constant presence, with four business phone lines ringing in the house at all hours. It established his life’s mantra — and has molded him as a legislator.

“We’ve never signed a death certificate in the history of our family company, never have we signed a single death certificate that said this individual died from work,” he said. “Work is a good thing. We were made, created, to be creative. To work. To put our hand on the plough. To make a better life and a better world. It defines your character.”

Southerland has four daughters and met his wife, Susan, in the first grade.

“I came to Congress and fell deeper in love with my wife,” he said. “I miss her. She’s my best friend.”

Southerland’s predecessor, Democratic Rep. Allen Boyd, a seven-term incumbent, had never had a close call. But he supported the 2010 health care overhaul as he was fending off a primary challenge. The National Republican Congressional Committee poured money into Southerland’s campaign.

Democrats answered, spending $338,000 to assist Boyd, but Southerland — a former Democrat, like many Panhandle Republicans — rode the GOP’s national momentum to a 13-point victory.

Southerland attributes his familiarity with his constituents to aiding his win.

“One of the things that the funeral business has done is that it has allowed me to know every area and every sector of my community,” he said. “I bury fishermen, I bury Wall Street tycoons. We serve families in all walks of life. Loggers, fishermen, oystermen, accountants, attorneys, brokers — it doesn’t matter. You’re coming to a funeral home.”

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