What's the best way to understand Tea Party freshman Dennis Ross of Florida? Go shooting with him.
ZOLFO SPRINGS, Fla. -- It's 7:30 a.m., and already the congressman and I are covered in blood.
Mine trickles out of a crescent-shaped gash on my forehead. It hurts, but the lingering buzz from our predawn whiskey shot helps.
The blood on Rep. Dennis Ross belongs to a 95-pound wild hog whose head he is removing with a hand saw. The skull plops to the ground. Ross yanks off the animal's skin and cuts open its belly with a bowie knife. He reaches inside and pulls out coils of slimy, gray intestines.
"It beats fundraising," he says with a grin.
DISTRACTED BY HOG HEADS
I had met Ross a few weeks earlier in his Capitol Hill office with a different sort of dissection in mind. National Journal had recently ranked him and nine other Republicans as the most conservative House members, and I wanted to see what made one of the most conservative members of the most conservative, powerful freshman class in the history of the House of Representatives tick.
After the 2010 midterms, the victorious Tea Party candidates vowed to shake Washington to its very core. But despite their bravado, a whole series of vote rankings (including NJ's) have painted them as not much different from the rest of the Republican conference. They diverge from leadership about as much as the old-timers do, although the rankings fail to capture some important dynamics. The only reason Washington had a debt-ceiling fight, for instance, was that the freshman class pushed the leadership into waging one. Even so, last week, the Tea-Party-before-the-Tea-Party-was-cool Club for Growth released a study asking whether the freshman class was really even Tea Party at all.
Ross is an exception. A year into his term, the Florida lawmaker has held his ground, voting against pretty much everything that the Tea Party hates: raising the debt ceiling, funding the government through short-term Band-Aid bills, and extending the payroll-tax cut without offsetting spending cuts.
"I was surprised, but honored," Ross said about topping the list. Being conservative is a quiet point of pride for him. He has never been one to grab headlines, saying he'll leave that up to his fellow Florida Republican, outspoken Rep. Allen West. And while Ross has friends at the Capitol, he is something of a loner in the freshman class, rarely attending group events or assuming leadership roles.
Ross says that the best way to be a conservative and a Christian is to try to lead by example rather than words. "Still, I don't fit the mold that a lot of people imagine," he said. "I think the image of a conservative is stodgy and holier-than-thou and without a sense of humor. I really like to enjoy life. I mean, I really like to enjoy life."
Ross came to Washington after eight years in the Florida Legislature and more than 20 years of running his own law firm. At 52, he has salt-and-pepper hair and broad shoulders. He's gregarious, the type of guy who might knock your glasses off with a pat on the back and who always seems to be smirking about something.
"I'm a reflection of a conservative in every respect, but I'm not a fanatic," he said, his eyes opening wide, as they tend to do when he gets excited. Ross's office is decorated like something a Hollywood screenwriter might dream up to lampoon a Tea Party lair.
Taxidermy is everywhere: two mounted hog heads, a deer head, and a turkey that looks like it was stuffed in mid-flight. Ross plans to fill a vacant bit of wall above the door once he vanquishes an alligator.
"You should come boar hunting with me sometime," he said, noticing that my stare kept veering to the wall behind him. Our conversation wasn't particularly memorable; we talked about how he'd been a conservative as long as he can remember despite having a Democratic mother, what a whirlwind the first year in Congress had been, and how he was a failed businessman before he became a lawyer. It was hard to stay focused under the marble-eyed gaze of the wild game.
Ross leaned forward in his seat to size up my multicolored socks, my oversized glasses, my untamed hair. "Of course, if it makes you more comfortable, we can donate all the meat to a food bank," he said.
It was a diplomatic gesture. If Ross had overestimated how much I might object to killing an animal for sport, I could forgive him. In Washington, people tend to rely on signals to get a sense of each other: party affiliations, voting records, socks. Subtleties get lost. I started thinking that the only way to really understand Dennis Ross would be to join him in his natural habitat.
GRITS AND HOME FRIES
For $3.90 at the Pioneer Restaurant in Zolfo Springs, you get bottomless coffee, two sausages, two eggs, grits, and home fries. It's fortunate that our hunting group -- Ross, his longtime friend Denny Morgan, a Hill staffer, and me -- ordered so much food. Otherwise, I may never have met Corvil Justesen.
Corvil ambles in about 20 minutes into our meal wearing camo suspenders proclaiming "Ona" on one strap and "Mayor" on the other. In reality, Ona -- a nearby town consisting of a stoplight, a post office, and 700 residents -- has no mayor, but if anyone is deserving of the title, it's Corvil. I didn't meet a single person in Zolfo Springs, a central Florida town of about 1,600, who didn't have at least one good Corvil story. The first one I heard was that some 40 years ago he was such a good poacher that the game commission just gave in and hired him as game warden. This didn't necessarily stop him from poaching, but at least he became his own problem.
As a rule, Corvil hates politicians. But he sees Ross as a kindred spirit, a guy working within an institution that he generally dislikes; a fellow freedom-lover who, by taking a job with the government, has become his own problem. "When are you going to do something about all these regulations?" Corvil asks Ross, taking a seat at the head of the table. A big-bellied man with a doughy face, Corvil wears a tan floppy hat, a tan shirt, and tan khakis. He looks like a plantation owner about to go on safari.
Having retired from the gaming commission, Corvil now makes his living as a cattle rancher and farmer. Government intrusion on his business is a big problem, he says. The most recent transgression involves his watermelon patch. "Now we have to wash the watermelon and dry the sumbitch before shipping it, because the government's afraid a Mexican has wiped his ass and then touched that melon," Corvil says, his molasses-like drawl rising in pitch. "Well, have you ever been to the grocery store? Them women lookin' at tomatoes and rollin' them around and bruising them. What's the difference between a woman at the market and a Mexican on the farm?"
"I hear you, Corvil," Ross says. "We can't do anything without the government approving you, which is a shame." Corvil bends Ross's ear for nearly an hour. He doesn't just talk about regulations. He urges Ross to keep fighting to cut spending, acknowledging how hard it must be for the government to try to take away benefits after years of providing them.