Stephanie Grace: Scalise known for building relationships

Now that U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise is running for House Majority Whip, he’s become the subject of some curiosity in Washington.

The Scalise that Congress-watchers know is a hardliner who, while still a backbencher, testily confronted Al Gore during a committee hearing on cap and trade; a skilled vote-counter who became chairman of 170-plus member Republican Study Committee — basically the caucus of the House’s conservatives — by beating the establishment choice; an amiable peacemaker able to build bridges between his party’s sometimes warring camps; and if he wins the post, the first true red-stater to join the GOP leadership’s top tier.

But there’s just as much to glean about Scalise’s politics, and even his potential, from a look at his formative years in the Louisiana Legislature.

Louisiana’s First Congressional District has become quite the launching pad for ambitious politicians in the recent years. But while they share ideological outlooks, anyone who watched Scalise in Baton Rouge knows he’s no Bobby Jindal or David Vitter. He’s really more of a Bob Livingston, the Metairie Republican who was such a creature of the House that his colleagues chose him to be their speaker (Livingston, of course, never took the gavel because of a sex scandal, and instead resigned to become a successful lobbyist).

Scalise’s two most recent predecessors may be go-it-alone types who saw the job as a stop on the path to the governor’s mansion — via the U.S. Senate, in Vitter’s case — but Scalise has always appeared perfectly content in the legislative branch. He enjoys a good, feisty debate. More importantly, he thrives in the sort of environment where relationships count. Once, back in the 1990s, he essentially won something of a popularity contest among his legislative colleagues who represent areas that comprise the First Congressional District in Baton Rouge. Scalise sought the District’s designated seat on the highly desirable Appropriations Committee. The lawmaker he challenged for the post, and who ultimately stood down once Scalise forced him into a runoff, was David Vitter.

Up in Washington, Scalise represents an overwhelmingly conservative district anchored by the Republicans strongholds of East Jefferson and St. Tammany. The same goes for the Jefferson Parish state House district that he represented for three, four-year terms, as well as the Senate district he briefly represented before the Congressional seat opened up. This is a politician who’s never had to worry about what less conservative voters might think, never had cause to give even a passing thought to moderating his message. He’s spent his entire career firmly inside his own comfort zone.

It shows in his record, and the accomplishments he touts from his Baton Rouge days. Scalise proudly boasts of having authored a measure to block former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial from suing gun manufacturers. He also authored the state’s constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Louisiana, and while many national Republicans are now watching the polls and shying away from the issue, Scalise bashed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling invalidating the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

“This Supreme Court ruling marks a low point in judicial activism where unelected judges turned against traditional marriage, which has been a hallmark of American society since our nation’s founding,” he said.

And yet, thanks to the oddities of the Louisiana Legislature as well as his genial demeanor, he also has a long track record of getting along with those who don’t necessarily share his point of view.

It surely helped that the Legislature isn’t organized by party. The down side of the arrangement is that it gives the governor more power relative to the Legislature, as Jindal and Vitter clearly know. The upside is that partisan rivalry plays much less of a role in dictating relationships and setting the tone than it does in Washington; that’s true now, and it was even truer back when Scalise served in Baton Rouge.

Those who’ve only watched him operate in Washington might be surprised to hear how well Scalise did in a more cooperative, less openly contentious environment. Along with tackling conservative priorities, the other accomplishment he loves to highlight is his key role in creating Louisiana’s film tax credits, a program that’s popular across the ideological spectrum.

It also wasn’t unusual in those days to spot him at campaign events for New Orleans Democrats. Among the friends he made in Baton Rouge is Cedric Richmond, another Louisiana House veteran who now represents the overwhelmingly Democratic 2nd District, and who is just as committed to his own party’s causes as Scalise is to his.

So if Scalise wins the whip contest, he’ll have no trouble playing to his base, both at home and in Congress. If he stays true to his roots he could do even do more, by finding a way to bring a little of that Baton Rouge attitude to D.C.

Hey, it’s not so often that the Louisiana Legislature produces something worth sharing with the rest of the country.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola