Elected: 2010, 2nd term.
Born: October 10, 1965, Nashville, TN
Home: Panama City
Education: Troy St. U., B.S. 1987; Jefferson St. Junior Col., A.A. 1989.
Professional Career: Owner, Southerland Family Funeral Homes.
Religion: Southern Baptist
Family: Married (Susan) , 4 children
Republican Steve Southerland, who upset seven-term Democrat Allen Boyd in 2010, is one of the tea party movement’s standard-bearers in the House. Southerland has shown little willingness to acclimate to Capitol Hill, telling constituents in June 2011 that Republican Speaker John Boehner’s leadership was “pathetic,” blasting the powerful, GOP-friendly U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and declining to take part in news conferences in which lawmakers were called on alphabetically. He found himself in a rare tough race for a House GOP member in 2014.
Southerland grew up in Panama City, Fla. His family has lived in Bay County for five generations, and he is a third-generation funeral director. His grandfather opened the Southerland Family Funeral Home and Crematory in 1955, and he began working there as a child, washing cars with his younger two brothers and a sister. After graduating from Alabama’s Troy State University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he returned to the family business, which he now co-owns with his sister. He also owns a timber business with his wife of 23 years, Susan. Over the years, Southerland got involved in civic organizations, including the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida and the Bay County Chamber of Commerce. In 2008, he got actively involved in politics, helping to found the Bay Patriots, a local tea party group. Southerland told the news website Daily Caller that his experience in the funeral business prepared him for Congress. “I’m a grief expert,” Southerland said. “I know what grief looks like. And when you close your family’s business for the last day, send all employees home, when you lose your home, when you can’t send your kids to college, (that’s) grief.”
In the 2010 election season, Southerland topped a crowded Republican primary field that included Air Force veteran David Scholl, getting 47% of the vote, for the right to challenge Boyd, a conservative Blue Dog Democrat who was vulnerable after voting for President Barack Obama’s health care insurance overhaul in 2010. Boyd voted against the initial bill, but later voted for the final version. As a result, he got hammered from both the right and the left on an issue that polarized voters in 2010. He drew a primary challenge from state Sen. Al Lawson, who attacked him for his vote against the bill initially. Boyd survived the primary with just 51% of the vote.
The primary depleted much of the $2.5 million war chest that Boyd would have turned on Southerland in the fall campaign. Then he spent much of the campaign on the defensive, this time explaining his decision to switch his vote on the health care bill from no to yes. Southerland, who raised $1 million, campaigned on reducing the deficit and hammered Boyd on the health care vote. Boyd tried to shore up his conservative credentials by touting endorsements from the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Chamber. He also tried to paint Southerland as a right-wing extremist, saying that his opponent would take Social Security benefits away from orphans and would vote to repeal the 17th Amendment providing for the direct election of senators. At a candidate forum, Southerland said he was “fine with” returning the ability to choose senators to state legislators. A spokesman for his campaign said that Southerland did not want to repeal the amendment, but did want to return to the “founding principles of the Constitution.” Southerland won, 54% to 41%.
Southerland received seats on the committees on Agriculture, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Natural Resources. In May 2012, he successfully amended a spending bill to stop the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s attempt to limit overfishing in certain areas, an idea he called “job-crushing.” Six months later, he dismissed a proposal to ban importing pythons and other exotic snakes as a “solution in search of a problem.” That led The Orlando Sentinel’s editorial board to cite the decimation of animal populations in areas where pythons have been introduced, including the southern Everglades. The newspaper said, “We’re still debating whether Southerland was being obtuse or disingenuous.” Drawing on his professional background, he introduced a bill stipulating that certain prearranged funeral and burial arrangements were not to be considered assets under the Supplemental Security Income program, prompting Florida’s Democratic Party to accuse him of doing so to bolster his industry.
Southerland drew attention in other ways. He said in January 2011 that 92% of the Obama administration had no private-sector experience, a debunked claim that earlier had been made by talk show host Glenn Beck. He was one of 66 House Republicans to vote against a deal in July 2011 to raise the federal debt ceiling. When a U.S. Chamber official said he would “get rid of” freshmen who refused to support raising the limit, Southerland retorted: “As far as I am concerned, [the Chamber’s] leadership forfeited its position as a voice for small business when it became comfortably entrenched in Washington’s status quo.” Southerland was also revealed as one of the lawmakers who took a midnight swim in August 2011 in the Sea of Galilee, a Christian holy site. The same month, he drew scorn from Democrats when he said that “if you took the hours that I work and divided it into my pay,” his annual $174,000 congressional salary would not seem very high.
With so much controversy surrounding him, and with redistricting making his district slightly less Republican, Democrats hoped to unseat Southerland in 2012. The environmental group Ocean Champions declared him “Ocean Enemy No. 1” because of what it called his anti-conservation stances, and urged its supporters to work for his defeat. Lawson returned for a rematch, and national Democrats liked his poll numbers enough to give him $750,000 for his race. But Republican groups came to Southerland’s aid, pouring over $1 million into the contest. Southerland prevailed with 53% of the vote. Though Lawson took Tallahassee-based Leon County by more than 33,000 votes, the incumbent was able to negate that effort by prevailing in more conservative Bay County by more than 35,000 votes. After the election, he lamented to The Wall Street Journal about his freshman class, “We came in wanting to change the world and realized it doesn’t move quite as fast as we would like.”
In his second term, Southerland showed little evidence of moderating his hard-line stances. During House floor debate on the farm bill in June 2013, he introduced a highly controversial amendment that would have allowed states to introduce work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food-stamp program. The amendment was approved on a party-line vote and led Democrats to withdraw their support for what had been a bipartisan bill; Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., called the provision "a draconian amendment that would have hurt the poorest citizens in our country very badly." Southerland later told The Washington Post: "The explosion of food stamps in this country is not just a fiscal issue for me. This is a defining moral issue of our time.” The bill eventually passed and became law without the language.
Democrats fielded a candidate they considered highly promising to take on Southerland in 2014: Gwen Graham, a Tallahassee school administrator, attorney, and the daughter of former Florida Gov. and Sen. Bob Graham, a well-liked centrist. She played up her family ties in calling herself a "Graham Democrat" who would seek to break through partisan gridlock. Southerland didn't help his cause when Buzzfeed reported that he was beneficiary of a men's-only fundraiser in March, with the invitation advising “tell the misses not to wait up.” Southerland fired back by running ads criticizing Graham for trying to fix the Affordable Care Act, saying it was a "disaster."