WASHINGTON — On the wall of a room in Suite 2338 of the Rayburn House Office Building hangs a gallery of framed photographs of past U.S. representatives from the 1st Congressional District of Louisiana: Bobby Jindal, David Vitter, Bob Livingston and many more.
With his election Thursday by House Republicans as majority whip, the current occupant of Suite 2338, Steve Scalise, has climbed higher in the ruling House hierarchy than those three better-known predecessors — higher, in fact, than any House Republican from Louisiana. And he’ll soon move to a new office, reserved for the majority whip, in the U.S. Capitol.
But Scalise’s ultimate ranking by history among the men in his photo gallery will depend on how well he can capitalize on the skills he deployed to win Thursday: intelligence, ambition, hustle, focus, geographical and ideological position, organization in both the long and short term and — maybe most importantly — the ability to build friendships and earn respect both within Republican ranks and beyond.
Livingston, now a Washington lobbyist, says he talks about how he was followed in office by Vitter and Jindal, both “brilliant” Ivy Leaguers and Rhodes scholars — and by Scalise, an LSU grad who can hold his own with either of them.
“He understands the process, No. 1,” Livingston said. “I can’t say that’s true of everybody on the Hill. He’s quick on his feet. The distinguishing feature is, while he’s a bright guy and an able legislator, he’s got street sense.
“I think he’s got tremendous potential.”
Besides attaining the whip post — the No. 3 spot in the House majority hierarchy, after speaker and majority leader — Scalise, 48, differs from Vitter and Jindal as a House member in another way: He’s been there longer.
For both Vitter and Jindal, the House served as a steppingstone to higher office: After five-plus years in the House, Vitter was elected to the U.S. Senate; Jindal spent three years in Congress and then was elected governor. Now Vitter hopes to leave the Senate and replace Jindal as governor next year, while Jindal’s ambitions are national.
Scalise still has a way to go to catch Livingston, who spent nearly 22 years in the House, or another congressman in the gallery: F. Edward Hebert, a Democrat who served from 1941 to 1977. But his campaign for whip suggests he’s thinking of making the House his home for a while.
Following a dozen years in the state Legislature, Scalise was elected to Congress in a special election in mid-2008 — after, the story goes, taking two for the team and standing aside at the behest of the Republican Party in the elections that sent Jindal and Vitter to Washington. With just over six years on the job, Scalise’s rise has been relatively swift, but he’s not an overnight sensation.
Scalise first laid claim to a significant institutional position in early 2013, at the beginning of his current two-year term, when he was elected as chairman of the Republican Study Conference, an unofficial group that includes more than 170 of the 233 House Republicans and that works to advance a conservative agenda. The race was close, and Scalise was helped by the support of the mainstream, moderate House leadership.
The organization provided him with a base from which to aim higher, which he wasted little time in doing. Although the unexpected defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a June 10 primary in Virginia set off the scramble that culminated in his election Thursday, Scalise had been planning a campaign for whip for months, with an eye on opportunities that might open in the future.
Although Scalise has engendered some criticism from the far right for his nonbomb-throwing leadership, his Republican Study Conference role did reinforce his conservative brand, not that he really needed it: He is one of 15 House Republicans to receive a perfect 100 rating from the American Conservative Union for his voting record in 2012-13.
But John Fleming, an RSC member from Minden, said Scalise is not hamstrung by his ideology.
“He’s remained in warm relationships with people who are not as ideologically conservative as we are,” Fleming said.
Bedrock conservatives, especially from red states and especially from the Deep South, have argued that they’ve been denied a seat at the leadership table, now occupied by Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio; Cantor, of Virginia; Whip Kevin McCarthy, of California, who will succeed Cantor on July 31; and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Washington, who, as chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, occupies the No. 4 spot. The four states that sent those members to Congress all voted for Democrat Barack Obama in both of his presidential campaigns.
By contrast, Scalise offers the trifecta: He’s provably conservative, and he’s from a Deep South state that twice rejected Obama by overwhelming margins.
But Scalise is not an “extreme extremist,” according to U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan, a 13-term Republican from Tennessee who is not an RSC member, though he has been affiliated with the libertarian Liberty Caucus.
“He’s a real good man,” Duncan said. “He’d make a great leader for our party. He has the kind of personality that enables him to get along well with everybody.”
“Everybody” can include Democrats, or at least it includes Rep. Cedric Richmond, of New Orleans, who got to know Scalise when both men served in the Legislature. Richmond doesn’t minimize his profound philosophical differences with Scalise — who, while in Baton Rouge, sponsored legislation to place a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution and to forbid police from collecting guns during a time of civil unrest — but he said that didn’t preclude friendship.
“We would fight during the day in the Legislature and then in the evening we would go play basketball and we would have drinks together,” Richmond said.
Richmond is lightheartedly dismissive of Scalise’s prowess on the court — “He claims to be a basketball player, and I am a basketball player” — but the performance at any level by the not-tall Scalise points to another element of his character that former Livingston aide Rick Legendre says is key: that Scalise is “extraordinarily competitive.”
Legendre counts Scalise as a close and loyal friend, someone who takes a common-sense approach to life and is “a lot of fun to be around.” They met when Legendre was Livingston’s district aide and Scalise sought his advice about making his first run for the Legislature.
In a meeting at Legendre’s office, Legendre spelled out whom Scalise should get to know and what he should do to run.
“I thought I’d never see him again,” Legendre said, “and then he called me two weeks later and said, ‘I’ve done all you told me to do. What do I do now?’
“And then I realized: This guy has a passion, and he really wants it.”
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