Lifetime of grief management readied Rep. Southerland for Congress

Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), a funeral director, calls himself a “grief expert.”

“Clearly, the most intense pain you will ever experience is the loss of a loved one,” he recently told The Hill. “But the loss of a job, a bankruptcy — those are real losses. The intensity is different, but the stages are the same.

“We see grief in America right now. As a funeral director, you come in at that initial point — the shock. And the next stage is anger. If you’re part of the 10.7 percent unemployment in Florida, or the 12 percent last year, you feel that anger now.”

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The parallel is one of many that relate his business to his life in Congress, he said.

“I can’t imagine a better preparation, having had exposure, throughout my entire life, with all walks of life,” he said. “Rich to poor, highly educated to grade school dropouts … You’re all going to come to a funeral home at some point.

“And [in Congress] you’re also trying to make things better. You’re trying to implement policy that gives hope to the grieving.”

Southerland’s grandfather started in funeral service in 1925 in Panama City, Fla. The family worked and lived on one site, where Southerland was immersed in the business from childhood.

“It helps you keep a big picture of what is important, and to realize that we will get through tough times,” he said.

His district, Florida’s 2nd, comprises all of 12 counties and parts of four others on the eastern end of the state’s panhandle.

The seat leans Republican, though Democrat Allen Boyd, whom Southerland defeated in 2010, represented it for 14 years. In the last two presidential contests, 54 percent of district voters chose Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and then-President George W. Bush (R), respectively, over their Democratic opponents.

In Southerland, those constituents have an even more conservative representative. He has broken with Republican leadership on nearly every major vote that split the caucus, including the final debt deal in August and the most recent continuing resolution.

“I’m not interested in deals,” he said, explaining his votes. “I’m interested in solutions. I won’t do this forever, so for the time that I’m here I’m going to do it right.”

He added that though he might disagree with his party leaders on “budget levels,” he’s always been treated “very well, very respectfully.”

“I have hopefully let them know that my heart is right, and that I’m real,” he said. “I may lose an election, but I will not lose me.”

In early March, Southerland introduced a bill preventing funeral and burial arrangements from counting as resources against individuals’ eligibility for the Supplemental Security Income program. It remains in committee.

He said he is busy with his work on the House Agriculture, Transportation and Infrastructure and Natural Resources committees. The last of these, he noted, is rooted in his “hobbies.”

“I love the Gulf of Mexico,” he explained. “I go out there on a boat, with a fishing rod and with a bottom machine. When I go 45 miles offshore and I drop that hook into 125 feet of water, I do so because of the fruits of my labor.

“I’m a conservationist; I’m not a preservationist. There is a difference,” he added.

“There are some who would like to turn the Gulf of Mexico into an aquarium. We have those already. Go to SeaWorld. But you can’t go to SeaWorld and get a snapper and put it on the grill and feed your family.”

Family life and the “intimacy” of the funeral business are what keep Southerland missing home, he said.

In August, he drew flack from the blogosphere and from Current TV anchor Keith Olbermann after he said that his $174,000 salary is “not so much” and that he “had a good life in Panama City” before coming to Capitol Hill.

Olbermann named Southerland one of his “Worst Persons in the World” in response, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also jumped on the comment, calling Southerland “out of touch.”

“Other than the success of my marriage, my family and my extended family, to serve as a member of Congress has been the greatest honor of my life,” Southerland told The Hill.

“The thing that I was trying to say, and that I want to convey, is that I love home. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

But does that mean he’s done with Washington?

“I promise I’ll know when, and it won’t be a lifetime from now.

“The funeral business has [enabled] me to understand that you don’t take anything with you.

What matters is people; it’s not things, it’s not a title, it’s not an office, it’s not a congressional pin. Because you can’t take those with you.”

Southerland will face at least one challenger in 2012. One-time Republican and former Florida state Sen. Nancy Argenziano said in September that she will run for the seat as an independent.