U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, is locked in one of the most closely watched congressional races in the country as he tries to fend off a challenge from Democrat Gwen Graham. The national parties and outside groups are pouring money into the sprawling, 14-county North Florida district that includes Tallahassee and Panama City.
Southerland swept into office on the tea-party wave of 2010, and he's known for taking conservative positions --- such as his push to add a work requirement for able-bodied adults to the food-stamp program and his opposition to the federal Affordable Care Act.
Southerland is married to a woman he met in the first grade, Susan, and they have four daughters. He is a fifth-generation Floridian running a family business, a funeral home that he says has never closed a day in the 60 years since it opened.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Steve Southerland:
Q: Florida's Congressional District 2 includes the struggling Apalachicola Bay seafood industry, which is harmed by the low flow down the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, and a number of poverty-stricken rural areas. Explain how your economic development plan would improve life for people in the district.
SOUTHERLAND: Specifically to Apalachicola, there's a couple of issues that I think we're staring at. First of all, the water flow down the ACF, and I think you're aware of the work that we have been pushing on the (Water Resources Reform and Development Act), and we got some good language in that act that gives Congress the authority now to step in from this point forward if the governors do not move forward with finding a solution. Up until the passage of this particular WRRDA bill, Congress did not have that legal footing, and now we do. So I think we're in a position to continue to put pressure from Congress on a solution.
I think the most recent positive we saw in the short term ... we saw the fisheries disaster declaration that we wrote letters to the secretary of commerce and urged need(ed) to be done. And then as a result of that, the region --- Franklin County and the Apalachicola Bay area --- will receive the $6.2 million in disaster relief funding. And so in the short term, (that's) certainly not a silver bullet to alleviate all their pain, but (it's) certainly of assistance.
You know, one of the things we're also doing is: we worked very closely with Second Harvest food bank, Franklin's Promise, to make sure that families have ... their daily nutritional needs. So I don't think it's all just government that is going to be able to alleviate the pain that is being experienced there. I think wonderful organizations like Second Harvest, like Franklin's Promise, are going to be able to help. And so it's a team effort.
I also think that the Florida Department of Agriculture under Commissioner (Adam) Putnam --- I've had discussions with him on what do we need to do to provide time for the bay to recover from the damage that has been inflicted upon it. I've talked to the seafood workers there. They know that the bay needs time to recover. But during that time of recovery --- which Congress does not determine, that's something that the state Department of Agriculture would determine --- during a time of recovery, people need to feed their families. And so in speaking with the commissioner, we've discussed several things: First of all, the shelling program that we will continue to try to find government grant money and program money to be able to perform the shelling to revive various areas of the bay that will be good for future oyster harvesting. And also the oyster relays that move particular bars in closer proximity to the fresh water that is flowing into the bay. So a relay moves those oyster bars from one area to another, and that can be funded through various programs.
I think the timing of the RESTORE (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States) Act is critical to a county like Franklin. I think that also really expands to other counties, like Wakulla, like Gulf ? and even Bay. The damages that have been levied against BP --- and now that those dollars are beginning to flow --- the purpose of the RESTORE Act is to restore damages created to both the environment and the economy. And so I think you're going to see projects in and around our waterfronts: dredging projects, fisheries projects, projects that aid our sea grasses and sea beds --- I think you're going to see those will be economic opportunities for people that currently don't have them. So I think the timing of the RESTORE Act is going to help in aiding some of our rural counties along the coast.
At the time those things are being implemented, I think there is also a push in Congress to try to pull the regulatory environment back into a more sensible direction. Listen, I think that the economy is hurting because of the overreach by the departments. It's an adversarial environment for job creators. ...
As far as you move inland, listen, I'm proud of passing the farm bill. I'm proud that I was on the conference that passed the farm bill, working to create that bill and to get it signed into law. That is going to produce certainty for our farmers. It's going to produce certainty for our loggers, and timber is a huge, huge crop --- the No. 1 crop --- in North and Northwest Florida. That's good for our mills, such as Rock-Tenn in Panama City and Buckeye in Perry, and the numerous sawmills that we have. So that's going to help our rural communities. ...
I know those are some broad things. I'm also putting tremendous pressure on National Marine Fisheries and (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to expand the red snapper season, because that's jobs, that's restaurant revenue, that's heads and beds in hotels when people can come to our coast and be able to bring their families and fish in our waters.
I think our bases, Tyndall Air Force Base and (Naval Support Activity Panama City), the Navy base, they are strong and doing well. We are continuing to protect the air operations center that's connected with the First Air Force at Tyndall Air Force Base. And we're very pleased with the ever-growing expansion of the 325th Fighter Wing and the F-22 at Tyndall Air Force Base. The dive school at the Navy base is doing extremely well. All Navy SEALs are trained in Panama City, the Naval Surface Warfare Center, the underwater salvage, the Coast Guard unit, they are doing extremely well and I do not see any threats to those being harmed in the near future. ...
Q: With respect to the Apalachicola Bay, it seems as if the U.S. Supreme Court and everyone else are waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers to come out with their new operating manual. Are you concerned that's going to be too late?
SOUTHERLAND: Well, I think we've seen that the Corps has, in my opinion, been woefully inadequate in addressing downriver effects of the reduced flow. And I think they've clearly not interpreted the law as perhaps Florida interprets the law. Listen, they have already created much pain, much suffering. And so, yes, any delay on the Corps of Engineers is unacceptable.
That's why we continue to put pressure on the Corps, continue expressing our insistence that they do their job in a way that it is advantageous to people down the ACF and Florida. And we'll continue to do that. But now, because of the (Water Resources Reform and Development Act) language, going forward, there is language in there that allows Congress to get involved in being more specific to the Corps. I think working with Sen. (David) Vitter (of Louisiana) and working with Sen. (Jeff) Sessions (of Alabama) on that particular language now puts us in a very good position to continue to apply more pressure on the Corps, specifically, to move in a faster, more efficient manner. And so yes, I now have legislative grounds to continue my pressure on them.
Q: You mentioned the National Marine Fisheries and this year's shortened red snapper fishing season. Could you explain what has happened and what you are trying to do about it?
SOUTHERLAND: Well, first of all, the National Marine Fisheries and individuals inside the National Marine Fisheries, I believe, are using smoke and mirrors to hide data that shows that the fishery --- particularly the snapper --- has recovered. We have used their own data to show that in 2007, when we had 180 days and a four-bag limit, that the fishery was rebounding then. And so for them to have implemented a nine-day season and a two-bag limit, and hinting already that next year we may not even have a season --- in total conflict with the data --- is inexcusable.
Now let me be clear. There are several organizations that are involved, I think, in putting their thumb on the scales here. One of those is: there was a lawsuit filed last year by 22 plaintiffs. ... That lawsuit, and the judge who settled that lawsuit, forced a nine-day red snapper season. So listen, there are outside forces, like Ocean's Champions organization, like the Pew Foundation, like the Environmental Defense Fund, and working with just a very handful of some commercial fishermen, who are pushing the fisheries into a privatization model. And I vehemently disagree with that. I think we need good science, we need good data, and then making rules that are aligned with that good data.
We know that the red snapper is doing well. We know that they are large; there are many of them. You can't even get your bait to the bottom, because you can't get by them. We know now, also, that they are having an adverse effect on other fisheries, like the triggerfish. There's a moratorium on the triggerfish right now. The National Marine Fisheries claims that the triggerfish is overfished. I don't believe that to be true. I believe that the triggerfish is over-eaten. It's being eaten by the swarm of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, because the red snapper is a predatory fish. ...
I believe the people own those fish, and it's a public resource, it's theirs, and I'm fighting for the recreational sector, the head boats or the charter boats, as well as the commercial fishermen who want to pass on the legacy of fishing to their children. ... Unfortunately, the Environmental Defense Fund and those other organizations I mentioned have aligned themselves with one sector, and they are using that one sector to divide relationships in the Gulf, to divide families and to divide neighborhoods, all for the sake of greed and for an environmental agenda.
So as a member of the fisheries subcommittee, serving on (the House Committee on) Natural Resources, I have a front-row seat. As someone who lives and grew up in Panama City, fishing my whole life, I understand this issue. And the best way I can describe what's going on out there right now, the red snapper is not overfished. An arbitrarily low-set quota by the National Marine Fisheries is overfished. But the fishery itself is healthy, it has rebounded, and the National Marine Fisheries, I think it's inexcusable what they're doing to harm our economy and the people who live along the coast.
Q: President Obama has another two years in office, during which he'll likely veto any repeal of the Affordable Care Act. By the time he leaves, millions of people will be insured. How can you fix the federal health care law without costing people their coverage?
SOUTHERLAND: Well, I know this: I know the worst thing to do is to continue a system that is forcing people off their current policies. And right now the president has a problem. And that problem is, his promise that you can keep your policy is not true. We are finding people that are losing their policies. And they're losing their policies not only because the policies often are discontinued, but they're also losing their policies because of increases of 10, 13, 15, 20 percent in premiums and massive increases in co-pays and massive increases in deductibles. This president was not truthful to the American people. He claimed, "You can keep it if you want it." What he should have said, if he were honest: "Many of you will not be able to keep it, and many of you who do want to keep your policies will only be able to keep it if you can afford it after my changes increased the prices of it." That's what he should have claimed, but he did not.
And so I know of no way to fix this mess created by this administration --- along with every other mess that he's created --- I know of no way to do this without injecting common-sense principles into the discussion. The portability of policies --- you've got to increase greater competition. Now, I have said over and over again, I have co-sponsored a bill that would prevent insurance companies from throwing people off their policies if they had a pre-existing condition.
People need to know that if they are purchasing a product that they're not going to be sitting out on the street because they've been thrown off that product. And I believe in that. But I also believe that the surefire way to create fairer, more affordable prices and better quality will be to give the American people greater choice. What the president is doing is destroying Medicare. He is taking money out of Medicare, and he is pushing physicians out of health care. It's been said by 2020, we're going to have a shortage of over 92,000 physicians in this country, all while 10,000 seniors a day are going into Social Security and Medicare. That is a train wreck. ...
People say, "Hey, we've got to fix it. What are your ideas to fix it?" Well, (House Democratic Leader) Nancy Pelosi herself still doesn't know what all is in it. So while we're trying to figure out how to fix it, we're still trying to figure out what's in it. But that's the problem when you depend on bad procedure to create policy. Bad procedure leads to bad law, and bad law destroys lives.
Q: Both you and Gwen Graham present yourselves as being more centrist than your opponent says you are. Whether it's the North Florida Way, or going back five generations in North and Northwest Florida --- explain why you have a truer sense of the district.
SOUTHERLAND: Well, I've never lived anywhere else. My family has never lived anywhere else. I mean, we're talking about 200 consecutive years of living in this district. You know, North and Northwest Florida has a particular rhythm to it. It's a rhythm, and it's unlike any other part of the country. And my life has been in harmony with that rhythm for 49 years. Listen, there's a lot of things I don't know about. There's a lot of things I'm unfamiliar with, and things I'm just inadequate to know. But (there is) one thing I am certainly qualified (in) being able to tout and speak as an expert on, and that is the rhythm of the 14 counties of North and Northwest Florida. And I said this the other day at our debate: It's not that I just know the district. The most important thing is that the district knows me, and that is what is important.