By Peter Finney Jr.
From the packed upper gallery of the House of Representatives on Sept. 28, Jennifer Scalise, New Orleans restaurateur Tommy Cvitanovich and a small cohort of unpretentious life-savers watched a miracle unfold below them.
News travels fast in Washington, D.C., but no more than a handful of people on the House floor knew until House Majority Leader Paul Ryan slammed his gavel and the doors opened to the chamber floor that Steve Scalise, the Louisiana Republican from Metairie who serves as the House Majority Whip, was reporting for duty once again, 3 1/2 months after he was nearly killed in June by a rifle shot while practicing for a Congressional charity baseball game.
“This was right at the top of the cool factor,” said Cvitanovich, whose family runs Drago’s Seafood Restaurant in Metairie. “Paul Ryan steps up and starts banging the gavel. Everyone starts looking around, and they’re like, ‘What’s going on here?’ He asked everybody to take their seats, and then he banged the gavel real hard. I mean, you could hear a pin drop.”
Then the doors opened, and Scalise, smiling broadly, walked in, carefully coordinating the movement of his two crutches, as the entire House erupted.
As Scalise slowly walked up several rows to his seat, Ryan banged the speaker’s gavel again and said: “The gentleman is recognized for as much time as he may have!
Scalise addressed his colleagues for only 13 minutes, but he had plenty to say.
“You have no idea how great this feels to be back here at work in the people’s house,” he said, adding that his brush with death and relearning how to walk had been “pretty challenging times for me and my family,” eased by the outpouring of “love, warmth and prayer” from friends and total strangers.
“And it starts with God,” Scalise said. “When I was laying out on that ball field, the first thing I did, once I was down and I couldn’t move anymore, is I just started to pray. I will tell you it gave me an unbelievable sense of calm knowing that at that point, it was in God’s hands. But I prayed for very specific things, and I will tell you, pretty much every one of those prayers was answered, and they were some pretty challenging prayers I was putting in God’s hands. He really did deliver for me and my family.
“The power of prayer is something you just cannot underestimate, so I am definitely an example that miracles really do happen.”
Scalise, a 1983 graduate of Archbishop Rummel High School and a parishioner of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Metairie, said he probably never would have made it to the hospital had it not been for several small miracles.
Because he was a Republican leader in the House, he was assigned a security detail from the U.S. Capitol Police. Officers Crystal Griner and David Bailey were able to return fire and killed the would-be assassin before he could inflict further harm.
“When I was laying there not long after the first couple of shots were fired, I could hear a different caliber weapon, and that told me that they had immediately engaged the shooter,” Scalise said.
After the shooter was killed, Ohio Republican Congressman Brad Wenstrup, a former Army Ranger and physician, rushed over to Scalise and applied a tourniquet that helped stop some of the blood flow.
Scalise looked to the gallery and thanked Dr. Jack Sava and Dr. Rob Golden for their life-giving care.
Cvitanovich, a 1977 Rummel graduate and a good friend of Scalise, prayed for weeks with the Congressman’s family and organized daily overnight shipments of comfort food to Scalise via FedEx from a brigade of New Orleans-area chefs. Cvitanovich wore a pair of Rummel High School cuff links to the speech.
“We’ve been doing food for the last six weeks,” Cvitanovich said. “About half the time it was my food. The other half of the time it was from a wide array of restaurants – I’ve sent Rocky and Carlo’s. When the Saints played the Vikings on Monday Night Football, I sent him nachos from the Superdome. One weekend when his kids were there, I sent Lucky Dogs with the Lucky Dog hats.
“We sent Galatoire’s, Emeril’s, Brennan’s, Arnaud’s, Zea’s ribs, P.J.’s (coffee), even restaurants in Lafayette and Baton Rouge. You name it, we sent it up to him. Everybody, everybody, including employees at restaurants, when they knew what we were doing, was 100 percent in. Nobody rolled their eyes.”
Cvitanovich said a meaningful gesture came from Louisiana Democratic Congressman Cedric Richmond, who often disagrees politically with Scalise, moving over to the Republican side of the House to sit right behind Scalise as he addressed his colleagues.
“You talk about the power of unity,” Cvitanovich said. “That was strong. That’s why the applause was so massive. The attack on Steve was an attack on the American people, and this is the house of the people. When you realize this was an attack on the American people, it does change you.”
Cvitanovich says he hopes a blessing from this tragedy will be better cooperation among polarized political parties.
“We need to express our differences, but then we need to get together and break bread, no two ways about it,” Cvitanovich said. “That’s what everybody in that room got from him. It was, ‘Hey guys, I got shot, but this was an attack on the American people. This was an attack on our institutions.’ They’re going to walk out there being Republicans and Democrats, but they got that message. We can’t viciously attack each other. You can be different and stand your ground, but treat everybody as humans and treat everybody with respect. I just hope this horrible tragedy does turn the needle a little bit in the other direction.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.