WASHINGTON — Rep. Barry Loudermilk of Georgia bought body armor. Rep. Gregg Harper hired armed security guards for events back home in Mississippi. And Rep. Dan Dovonan fortified his Brooklyn and Staten Island offices with security cameras and buzzer systems.
This is the new normal for members of Congress. One year after the horrific congressional baseball shooting that almost took the life of Rep. Steve Scalise and former Hill staffer Matt Mika, members are keenly aware that serving in public office has put a target on their backs.
“The true reality is if somebody wanted to do me harm, they could probably do that with relative ease and that is sad,” said Rep. Chuck Fleishmann (R-Tenn.), a New York City native.
The threats against them have skyrocketed.
In 2016, there were 902 threatening incidents and communications against members of Congress. By 2017, the reports had more than doubled to about 2,000, according to the House Sergeant at Arms office.
In response, the House Administration Committee allocated $25,000 to each member in 2017 and again in 2018 to beef up their personal and office security, prompting members to hire bodyguards for events and equip offices with panic buttons and shatter-resistant glass.
The House Sergeant at Arms got an additional $5 million to improve office security for district offices. Congress also increased funding for Capitol Police by $29.2 million in 2017, and another $29.9 million in 2018.
In recognition of the danger level, the Federal Election Commission also ruled in July that lawmakers can also use campaign funds –typically spent on TV ads and mailers — to install security systems at their homes.
Harper, the chairman of the House Administration Committee that authorized security spending, said the shooting made clear that Congress needed to do more.
“What we would never want to have happen is for an incident to occur and anybody – a member, a visitor or staffer – to say you didn’t give us what we needed to protect ourselves,” Harper said.
Some members report feeling safer, but there are still barriers.
Unchanged is that only the select members of leadership — five people out of 435 House members — are assigned security, including Scalise, whose heroic police officers fended off the baseball shooter last year.
And members of Congress aren’t allowed to carry around their licensed concealed guns while in Washington, taking away one option to defend themselves.
“I’m trained at what I do and how I do it with a weapon,” said Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Mich.), who backs concealed carry reciprocity legislation. “If I had the ability to carry, I would feel safer.”
Bishop said the defenselessness became “crystal clear when I hit the ground that day on that baseball field and realized that I had absolutely nothing to defend myself with against someone who had a weapon that he was double tapping on.”
The 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords in Arizona demonstrated the risks of public service, but the need for widespread security improvements were punctuated with the 2017 targeted attack on the Republican baseball team.
On the morning of June 14, 2017, liberal activist James Hodgkinson opened fired at the Alexandria, Virginia, practice field. The bullets nearly cost Scalise and Mika their lives. Also injured were Zachary Barth, a congressional aide who was shot, Rep. Roger Williams, who injured his ankle and sustained shrapnel wounds, and two Capitol police officers, Crystal Griner and David Bailey.
One year later, the GOP team will make a triumphant return to the charity baseball game on June 14 at Nationals Park in Washington.
But unlike last year, they are practicing at a different – and heavily guarded – baseball field in Washington that The Post got to visit on the condition it was not identified.
“It was good to move from where we were,” said new team manager Williams (R-Texas), a former minor league baseball player and coach at Texas Christian University. “A lot of us, including myself, did not want to go back there.”
Williams said the return to baseball shows the strength of the country and determination of members to move past a terrible event, which “for those us who were wounded (feels) it’s like it was yesterday.”
“We’re aware. We’re not afraid,” Williams said.
Since the baseball shooting, Loudermilk has been reminded regularly how perilous life is.
Three months after the shooting in September, he got rear-ended off the road, flipping his vehicle several times. About a week after the car crash, a gunman shot at the car he was driving with his wife in the North Georgian mountains. Then he was on the Amtrak train Jan. 31 with other Republicans heading to a West Virginia retreat that hit a garbage truck, killing one person.
“Do I feel safer? No,” said Loudermilk, whose baseball practice clothes still have Mika’s blood. “Threats went up significantly. We have these – almost like wanted posters – in our district office of people who have made threats against me and my staff.”
Some baseball players are still healing from the physical and emotional injuries from the trauma. They look to the remarkable recovery of Scalise and Mika as examples of fortitude.
Mika, a former Adrian College baseball and football player, had volunteered to help out at GOP congressional team practice for about decade. The bullet wounds left him down and bleeding out on the practice field. A year later, his body is scarred, but he’s back to the baseball field in high spirits and throwing balls in practice.
“I’m not a victim,” Mika, a lobbyist for Tyson foods, said. “I’m a survivor.”
Loudermilk, an Air Force veteran, had flashbacks for months after the shooting. He’d see Mika, on the brink of death. He knelt down in the pool of his blood and prayed, so Mika wouldn’t die alone.
“He shouldn’t be here today,” Loudermilk said. “The grace of God on him and just the internal fortitude to live, that’s what impressed me about him. He didn’t die because he didn’t want to.”