BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — When he campaigned for his leadership job, Rep. Steve Scalise embraced two things he loved, baseball and his home state of Louisiana, handing out commemorative baseball bats and serving up a Cajun dinner with oysters and gumbo.
The House's third-ranking Republican is known as much for that sort of joie-de-vivre, a backslapping, hearty embrace of the lighter side, as he is for his rock-solid conservatism and allegiance to the GOP. He returns every year to the Louisiana Legislature where he once served with hugs and handshakes as he mingles with former colleagues of both parties.
Nationally, Scalise, the majority whip, is the party-line vote-getter for Republicans in Congress and a fierce proponent of the GOP health care law and efforts to overhaul the tax code.
Back home, he's the kid from the Italian family who's become one of the most powerful men in Congress while remaining an unabashed champion for the food, culture and festivities of Louisiana and the political deal-making he learned there.
"He comes from a middle-class family, salt of the earth, and Steve is exactly that. He's old school. You shake his hand, his word is his bond," said Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, a Republican who served in the state legislature with Scalise for years, lives in Scalise's congressional district and knows his family.
Scalise, 51, was in critical condition following surgery, the hospital said, after being shot in the hip Wednesday during a GOP baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, a shooting that stunned his home state and rocked the halls of Congress.
"Personally, we have our Italian-American connection, so as soon as I heard his name, I was filled with concern ... We had that special connection," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in an emotional speech on the House floor.
The wounding came when Scalise was practicing for an annual charity baseball game that he embraced each year and that was scheduled for Thursday night.
On his desk, the principal of Archbishop Rummel High School where Scalise graduated in 1983 has a photocopied image of a middle-aged Scalise in a Rummel Raiders baseball uniform, given to him by the school so Scalise could wear it in the game for which he was practicing.
"That's pretty much the mantra of the school: We're all brothers," said Marc Milano, leader of the all-boys Catholic School. "Everybody sticks together. So when something happens like that it affects everybody. Steve very much lives that out."
Time and again, the stories are the same nearly 10 years after his election to Congress, of Scalise staying in touch with the New Orleans area where he grew up.
His campaign for the whip job had a Louisiana flair that included distribution of "Geaux Scalise" T-shirts and Cajun food. When he registered for one of his most recent elections, he stuck around to eat gumbo and traditional Louisiana sandwiches called po-boys with Schedler. He regularly takes his congressional colleagues on helicopter trips to offshore oil rigs, as he advocates for an oil and gas industry that is critical to Louisiana. One of his closest friends remains Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat who leads the Congressional Black Caucus and befriended Scalise when the two were both in the state House.
Richmond defended Scalise in the only scandal the Republican leader has faced. In 2014, information came to light after his election as whip that Scalise had spoken in 2002 to a white supremacist group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Scalise apologized for the speech, described himself as unaware of the group's racial philosophy when he agreed to speak and said that he rejects "bigotry of all forms."
Before entering Congress, Scalise was in the Louisiana Legislature for 12 years. His signature legislation included a film industry tax credit program aimed at helping Louisiana become "Hollywood South" and a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage.
Scalise, married with two children, was first elected to the U.S. House in 2008, representing a district that includes some New Orleans suburbs and bayou parishes. He served as chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservatives, before becoming whip in the leadership shuffle that followed the surprise defeat of then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary.
As a lawmaker, Scalise built relationships with people of diverse views, even as he maintained an unshakable conservative voting record.
"He doesn't intimidate. He doesn't burn bridges with people. If he can't work it out, he just shakes hands and agrees to try again next time, agree to disagree, and keep it civil. And that's a lost art," Schedler said.
Democratic Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards called Scalise a "friend, colleague and fighter for the people of Louisiana." The chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, described the congressman has having a "core philosophy of standing up and fighting hard for what you believe in."
On the other side of the political aisle, Scalise has forged a close relationship with President Donald Trump, working together on the House health care bill and a pending effort to overhaul the tax code. Trump, in remarks from the White House, called Scalise "a very good friend" and said, "He's a patriot, and he's a fighter. He will recover from this assault."
When he won the job as the No. 3 House Republican, Scalise got the security detail that comes with the position, assigned to him at all times. Louisiana politicians often have joked about the round-the-clock bodyguards for a congressman known as unassuming and low-key.
"I've seen him a couple of times like in the Superdome and I often wondered, 'Well, why in the hell did he have all those security people with him?" said Louisiana Senate President John Alario.
"I see why now," Alario added. "It was an abundance of caution. I'm glad they did it."
Daly reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Kevin McGill in Metairie, Louisiana, contributed to this report.