WASHINGTON — Few surveying the blood- and bullet-strewn Virginia ballfield where Steve Scalise was shot a year ago would’ve expected the Jefferson Parish Republican to be where he is now.
He’ll be throwing on a baseball uniform Thursday evening — most likely topped off with a gold LSU jersey in a nod to his beloved alma mater in Baton Rouge — and heading to a charity congressional ballgame between Democrats and Republicans at Washington Nationals Park.
Scalise is penciled into the GOP’s starting lineup at his old spot, second base, coach and Texas GOP Rep. Roger Williams told the Associated Press. The scrappy 52-year-old might even get a chance to square up in the batter’s box against New Orleans Rep. Cedric Richmond, a longtime friend and the Democrats’ star pitcher.
Scalise might not be diving for grounders or bounding across the field — he’s walking again, usually with the aid of a pair of purple-and-gold crutches, but can’t yet run — but little else has eluded him in his remarkable comeback from a 7.62 mm rifle round that smashed his hip and nearly killed him.
He’s reasserted himself as a rising force among Republicans, throwing himself back into his job as the House majority whip after three months in the hospital, and has become one of the most powerful GOP politicians on Capitol Hill.
Scalise’s future hung in the balance on June 14, 2017 — bleeding badly as police officers took on the gunman, fading as he waited for a helicopter, unconscious and shuttling between surgeries at the hospital. His future now appears in many ways brighter than ever.
Though his abilities on the ballfield aren’t what they used to be — he joked on Tuesday that “if they need me to run bases or something, then the Republicans really are in trouble” — he has returned to U.S. Capitol politically stronger.
He appears to have further solidified an already tight relationship with President Donald Trump, who in his State of the Union address hailed Scalise as “the legend from Louisiana.” He has raised millions for the upcoming midterms while crisscrossing the country for fundraisers. And he now finds himself in the midst of a two-man race to succeed retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, if the GOP can hold onto its majority.
Scalise has thrown his endorsement to Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, but hasn’t denied his own interest in the job. Scalise would be a prime candidate to step in were McCarthy, who is distrusted by some right-wing Republicans, to fall short of the speaker’s gavel while trying to gather the votes.
In October, shortly after returning to work after three months in the hospital, Scalise told The Advocate that he never considered stepping back from public life. But there was plenty of reason to doubt whether the injuries — the high-powered bullet smashed bones and badly damaged a number of organs — would allow Scalise to return.
“There were days I wasn’t sure — especially those first few days in and out of surgery, fighting for my life — I didn’t know what I’d be able to do,” Scalise said Tuesday at an event in . “I didn’t know if I’d even be able to walk again, let alone get back to work, and I’m able to do both, thank God.”
'I was amazed I was alive'
Republican members of Congress, staffers and lobbyists had gathered just after dawn in a leafy Washington suburb a year ago for a final tune-up for the big game, a chance to loosen up before heading to work in the halls of the nation’s power.
The ballplayers were scattered across the field — Scalise was taking grounders at second base — when the crack of gunfire interrupted the gentle rhythms of practice at 7:06 a.m.
The shooter, 66-year-old James Hodgkinson of Illinois, leveled his SKS semi-automatic rifle at the players and began peppering the field with rifle fire. Hodgkinson apparently said nothing before opening fire. He carried a list with the names of a handful of Republican lawmakers in his pocket.
Scalise was shot once and collapsed to the ground before slowly crawling toward the outfield grass. The nonstop rifle fire kept others pinned down. A congressional aide was shot through the leg, and a lobbyist was hit in the chest and arm.
A pair of U.S. Capitol Police officers assigned to protect Scalise, special agents David Bailey and Crystal Griner, returned fire. Griner was shot in the ankle, Bailey was struck by a flying piece of shrapnel, but both continued to take on Hodgkinson as local police officers rushed to the scene, eventually killing the gunman.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Ohio and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, the team’s first baseman, rushed to Scalise’s side as soon as the gunfire stopped. Wenstrup, a doctor and Iraq War veteran, quickly realized the severity of Scalise’s injuries and applied a tourniquet.
“I did what I did in Iraq," Wenstrup told a reporter for The Advocate that day. "He (Scalise) was losing a lot of blood.”
As Scalise waited for a helicopter to fly him to a D.C. hospital, he asked Flake to fetch his cellphone from his bag and call his wife, Jennifer, back home in Louisiana.
"I wanted to make sure Jennifer was notified, and I was in no position to call her,” Scalise told The Advocate in the October interview. “It was 6:30 in the morning, roughly, New Orleans time, and it woke her up. Luckily, she answered the phone … and Jeff told her what happened.”
Scalise’s doctors later described him as at “imminent risk of death” when he arrived. He spent the next several days mostly unconsciousness, rushed between a series of major surgeries.
“You could take a bear down with the bullet I was hit with,” Scalise said Tuesday. “When I looked at the caliber bullet I was hit with, I was amazed I was alive.”
Scalise survived surgeries and subsequent infections and endured the monotony of a three-month stint in the hospital. By August, aides were swinging by his room to brief him on business in Congress, and he was working the phones to talk policy and strategy.
By the end of September, Scalise was well enough to make a grand return to the U.S. House of Representatives, walking onto the floor under his own power and delivering a speech to tearful ovations from both sides of the aisle.
Into the thick of it
Scalise threw himself back into a jammed schedule of deal-making, arm-twisting and power-brokering on Capitol Hill, zipping between meetings on a purple-and-gold scooter covered in LSU stickers with a horn that blared “Eye of the Tiger.”
The bipartisan embrace of Scalise — an affable lawmaker who’s personally well-liked by many Democrats as well as Republicans — didn’t dampen the all-out partisan battles raging in Washington.
Almost immediately upon his return, Scalise joined the bitter fight to pass a massive GOP-backed tax cut without any Democratic votes. The cuts overhauled the corporate tax code and slashed rates for businesses and individuals — but, as Democratic critics were quick to point out, are widely projected to substantially grow federal budget deficits.
Liberals and centrists who’d hoped his ordeal would soften his deeply conservative views on key issues were disappointed. Scalise, who championed looser gun laws while a member of the Louisiana Legislature, has stood by his pro-gun convictions and remained a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
He’s among the most conservative members of GOP leadership on controversial issues like immigration — championing the president’s calls to build a wall along the Mexican border — and has remained an unapologetic supporter of Trump.
'Back in the Game'
When the Republican baseball team got together for their first practice of the spring in April this year, Scalise was recovering from his ninth — and, he hopes final — surgery. But as the game pulled closer, Scalise broke out his glove and gold LSU jersey, dropping in first on his GOP teammates, then paying a visit to the Democratic opposition.
He played catch, stooped over to field grounders and even stepped to the plate to take batting practice. He may not have the same speed down the first base line — at least not yet. But Scalise, just like the title of his forthcoming memoir, is very much “Back in the Game.”
“We lost (the baseball game) last year when I didn’t play,” Scalise said Tuesday, “and I told Cedric Richmond that I’m coming back with a vengeance.”