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Steve Scalise, Walking Tall

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

PITTSBURGH -- Everyone wants to shake Steve Scalise's hand. A year ago, the Louisiana congressman was near second base at an early morning baseball practice when the sound of shots pierced the quiet of suburban DC. A bullet zigzagged through his left hip, slicing muscle tissue, crushing his femur and mangling his organs.

Now, he is recognized by passersby as the man whose survival is nothing short of a miracle.

As he walks down the hall of the Duquesne Club -- a handsome old-money institution where President Ulysses S. Grant was one of the first guests -- a man steps up to him.

"I was praying for you," he says to Scalise.

The first thing Scalise did when he felt the 7.62 caliber bullet fired by James T. Hodgkinson scissor through his body was pray, he says.

Hodgkinson, 66, targeted several Republican members of Congress practicing for a charity baseball game, gravely wounding Scalise along with Capitol Hill police officers Crystal Griner and David Bailey last June. Hodgkinson, a former Bernie Sanders campaign worker from Illinois who often voiced his hatred for President Trump on social media, asked a congressman for the players' party affiliation right before opening fire. The shooter died at the hospital after a gun battle with the Capitol Police who were only there because Scalise, as House majority whip, had armed protection.

"I fell to the ground and started crawling away from the shooting," Scalise remembered. "You're just thinking about getting away, that's the first instinct, and then my legs gave out, my arms gave out and I couldn't move anymore and I'm still hearing shooting. For all I know I could've been next, and I started praying to God."

Suddenly the vision of his 10-year-old daughter as an adult on her wedding day floated through his mind. Just before he went into shock, he prayed: "God, please don't let Madison walk down the aisle alone."

Now the House majority whip is looking toward a bright future. He is considered one of the people most likely to replace Paul Ryan as the next speaker of the House if Republicans keep their seats in November.

Scalise, 52, and his wife and two children live not far from the working-class neighborhood in Louisiana where he grew up. He caught the politics bug at college and without any experience he ran and won his first race for Louisiana state representative aged just 29. That race forged his reputation as a rebellious and likeable populist conservative, a not-yet identified faction of the Republican Party. In 2016, he was one of the early and few members of Congress to back presidential candidate Donald Trump.

"The appeal of Scalise is that he is an everyman. He is you, he is me. He is the guy who no one really notices until he shows up and wins when no one expects it," said Charlie Gerow, a media specialist.

Gerow said Scalise first proved his political skills when he came from behind and won the chairmanship of the conservative Republican Leadership Conference in 2012 and "then surprised the outside world when he became the majority whip in the same year."

Both jobs, said Gerow, are like herding cats, "because every member comes from very distinct districts, and they have their very distinct needs that fit their district."

Scalise faced controversy four years ago when it emerged that he had spoken about taxes at a 2002 convention that had ties to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Scalise initially said he didn't remember the event, then apologized publicly and forcefully, adding that he had been attending a series of nonstop constituent events and had no idea about the nature of the group.

He survived, both politically and personally, and is now thinking ahead. But on the subject of the speaker's job, he won't go there -- not yet.

"No, I'm not running for speaker, and I've been clear. We all need to be focused on keeping this majority," he said. "I mean, if we don't have the majority, then Nancy Pelosi takes over and we lose complete control over the direction of the country, and we can't let that happen. I feel good about what we're doing in the House on the policy side."

As of this week, RealClearPolitics shows congressional Democrats ahead of Republicans by approximately 8 percentage points, a number that has swung wildly since last December from a 13 percentage high to a 4 percentage low.

Despite nearly losing his life to a politically motivated gunman, Scalise still has not wavered on his strong support for the Second Amendment and his core belief that you can disagree on policy and still hold deep friendships with people who don't share the same viewpoints. "I still have strong relationships with people on both sides of the aisle," he said, pointing to Pittsburgh Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle.

"I consider Doyle a real friend. We both serve on the Energy and Commerce Committee so we battle it out on some of these issues, but we have a respect for each other. I think that's really where it comes down. You ought to fight for the things you believe in, but you don't go after people's character and you don't try to question somebody's integrity just because they disagree with you politically."

Doyle, a devout Catholic and the captain of the Democrats' congressional baseball team, was just a few miles away at his own practice on the day of the shooting. He led his team in prayer as soon as he got the news. "On that day, Steve wasn't a Democrat or a Republican," Doyle said. "He was one of us. And we were unified in the moment in concern for one another."

At 5-foot-8 and supported by two canes, Scalise walks tall as he makes his way into the conference room, not because he represents Washington but because he embodies a simple decency. Whether the GOP holds on to its majority or not, Scalise will certainly emerge as a leader of this new populist conservative coalition that is now the Republican Party.

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