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.
“The problem I have is that I get impatient.”—Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla.
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.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Ross takes his cues from Corvil more than from House Speaker John Boehner, with whom he never gets this much one-on-one face time. Ostensibly, this is why lawmakers are away from the capital so much. Not only is the House schedule two weeks on, one week off, but members often spend only three full days in D.C. so they can have long weekends at home.
In Ross’s case, home is Florida’s 12th Congressional District, which stretches east through farmland and citrus groves from the outskirts of Tampa and St. Petersburg. He was elected with 48 percent of the vote against a Democrat and a tea party-backed third-party candidate in 2010, succeeding Republican Adam Putnam, who retired to run for state agriculture commissioner. The district is Republican but competitive. John McCain won here in 2008 by just 1 percentage point over Barack Obama.
“Leadership wants me to be a team player,” Ross would later tell me. “I am a team player, but I just remember who put me on the team.”
A BIG MIDDLE FINGER
We pass the ruins of a phosphate-processing plant on the drive to Ross’s hunting property. All that’s left is one crumbling smokestack. “This whole area used to be rich with phosphate companies,” Ross tells me. “There used to be 30 different companies around here, but because of regulations and foreign markets, it’s down to three.” From the perspective of Ross’s constituents, the derelict tower is a big middle finger from the government.
As young men, Ross and Morgan worked as surveyors for a mining company. The way Ross tells it, almost everyone he knew worked at some point for the mines, or at least at a job that existed because of the phosphate beneath their feet. The phosphate companies were so good to the area that Ross says Hardee County—where we are going to hunt—once had more millionaires per capita than any other in the country. It now ranks among the poorest places in the state.
The phosphate processors have moved to places like China and Morocco, and the towns around here are now filled with trailer parks and “more churches than Milwaukee has pubs,” says Ross, who has spent plenty of time in both types of establishment. “I understand that for a while the companies weren’t great stewards of the land and were in need of some regulating,” Ross says. “But the pendulum swung too far.”
This is the narrative that spawned the central tenet of Ross’s congressional tenure: Keep the government out of people’s way. In his short time in office, he has used hearings to speak out against the Environmental Protection Agency and has sponsored a bill aimed at limiting the length of the environmental impact studies mandated by the National Environmental Protection Act.
As we pull into Ross’s plot of land, it’s obvious where mining has and hasn’t taken place. Unlike the empty fields dotted with small ponds (the by-products of strip mining), the acreage that Ross owns with a few of his friends is lush. This “old, pristine Florida,” as he calls it, is thick with knee-high palmettos and towering oaks wearing long, draping beards of Spanish moss.
Ross likes to say that the best way to make sure the land is taken care of is to leave it in the hands of its owners, not in the hands of the government. To him, this property is the perfect example. That much of the area was devastated by individuals and private companies doesn’t seem to factor much into his thinking.
A HOG IN THE CROSSHAIRS
We park at a small campground of trailers and unload the guns from the back of the truck.
The largest of the four, an AR-15 semiautomatic, belongs to one of Ross’s sons. Both of Ross’s two children killed their first boar before they were 10, but the lawmaker himself came to hunting later in life, after he met his wife. Her family got Ross interested in hunting. “The only key to any land they had was a pair of bolt cutters,” he tells me.
Ross decided a while ago that it was best for him to get some land of his own to hunt on, and he’s glad he did. It’s one of the few things he can do these days and feel as though he has accomplished something—a feeling he rarely gets from his work in Washington.
“The problem I have is that I get impatient,” Ross says of his first year in office. “I want to see gratification, and I want results, but the process hasn’t allowed us to do that.” Yet, for all his frustration, he doesn’t see himself as part of the problem. So what if he and others helped bring the country to the brink of default during the debt-ceiling negotiations? So what if voting against measures to fund the government could have caused a shutdown? “I don’t view this as clashing,” he says of the partisan nature of Congress. “It’s more about slowing down the ship and working to put it in another direction.”
I go with the .308 Ruger M70 rifle. The name means very little to me, but it sounds impressive. Ross tells me that it’s a big gun that shoots big bullets. We jump into a Kawasaki Mule utility vehicle and go in search of hogs. Right away, it’s clear that finding them won’t be hard. We drive through cattle fields filled with patches where hogs have dug up the dirt. The locals tell me that hogs breed faster than rabbits and are something of a problem in the area. A hog infestation has held up the construction of a golf course. You can hunt them year-round because they are such a nuisance.
“They’re damn near the only thing that isn’t regulated down here,” Ross says.
So it isn’t much of a surprise when, just 15 minutes into our bumpy ride, we spot three hogs about 80 yards away. They are tucked into a patch of tall grass, just their heads and flicking tails visible. Ross shuts off the Mule, hands me the gun, and tells me to take a knee and shoot. I line up the middle hog in my scope, figuring that if I miss wildly, maybe I’ll at least hit one of its companions.
It’s not that I’ve never shot a gun before. I have. I took riflery at camp when I was a kid, and my father-in-law takes me to the shooting range when I visit western Massachusetts. But my targets have always been clay pigeons or bowling pins. Shooting at an animal is a new experience. Plus, the whole situation feels surreal. I’m used to waiting for members of Congress to come out of meeting rooms, not having one of them crouch behind me.
And keeping the hog in the crosshairs of the scope proves to be especially difficult since I can’t help but think about what kind of magazine story I will end up writing. Should I try to turn the hogs into a metaphor for the tea party: untamed beasts tearing up whatever they could while journalists tried to snipe them down? Will it make a difference if I hit the hog or not? I take a deep breath, trying to get out of my own head.
I ask Ross if I should be worried about recoil. He says no. He’s wrong. I fire the gun, and the scope kicks back into my forehead, opening a gash about an inch long. My ear is ringing from the shot, my nose burning slightly from the noxious smell of gun smoke.
“You got him!” Ross shouts. He looks at me and starts laughing so hard he kneels to keep from falling down. “I guess you also got yourself.” Eventually, this injury will send me to the emergency room where they will glue it shut. For now, Ross has a DIY remedy: a post-hunt round of Jim Beam shots back at camp.
STICKING BY HIS GUNS
In his office a week after the hunt, Ross still wouldn’t let me live down cracking myself in the head. But as he poked fun, he also said he could empathize. As strong as my culture shock was in Florida, he told me, he’s had it as least as bad coming to D.C. “In this job, there have been plenty of times that I’ve hit my target, only to look up and realize that I got bloodied in the process,” he said.
His vote against raising the debt limit was one of these moments, he said, and he wouldn’t be surprised if another one comes up late this year or early next. The first time the debt-ceiling issue arose, Ross told Boehner to his face that he wouldn’t be able to vote for an increase. The blowback hit him hard.
“There were some heated exchanges with leadership,” he told me, noting that his chances of getting on his choice committees are now next to nothing. But he promised people like Corvil that he wouldn’t raise the debt ceiling when he ran for office, so no matter how much damage it could do to him (he seems impervious to how much damage it might do to the country), Ross said he will continue to stick by his guns (his joke, not mine).
“They can’t take us for granted,” Ross said about his party leadership. “There are those of us who, even though we are freshmen—and we are reminded of that every day—and even though we are not in the decision-making arenas that leadership is in, our vote is not their vote just because we are all Republican.”
This article appears in the June 2, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.