Mimicking a cooking show host, he begins to narrate his process: “What we’re going to be doing is ... basting these babies in the best blackening seasoning there ever is.” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), 63, makes snoring sounds while Scalise talks through the mechanics of getting a protective layer of seasoning on the fish. Scalise teases Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) for keeping expired butter in the refrigerator. Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) stands to the side of the stove, smiling in an apron.
The video was a send-off for Paulsen, 53, who lost to a Democrat in November. He was one of 104 members set to leave Congress after the midterm elections. And in his case, that meant the end had arrived for a foursome of congressmen who’d spent the previous decade as housemates.
When Paulsen was elected to Congress in 2008, he heard of an open room in Shimkus’s Capitol Hill townhouse from a Minnesota congressman who was moving out. The room was only 8 by 8 feet, and in the basement. But for an unassuming Minnesotan, fond of cool temperatures, it was perfect.
As the months passed, they saw one another through tough races and professional success. Brady became chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and Scalise became whip. They persuaded Paulsen, a hockey player, to join the Republican congressional baseball team, for which Shimkus was the pitcher. On practice days, they’d gather on the ground floor, and Shimkus would get antsy and yell down to Paulsen, who’d pop his head out of the basement door, earning him the nickname Gopher.
They made a tradition of bringing their families to Washington for the Congressional Baseball Game each summer, piling four wives and 11 kids into the townhouse. Paulsen, who had the smallest room, also had the biggest family, with four kids. “He could stick his whole family in that little room, and his mom and dad,” recalls Shimkus. “I call it ‘gerbilizing.’ The only way they fit is they’re all kind of huddled up.”
Baseball would eventually bring them together in a darker way. On June 14, 2017, Scalise was gravely wounded at practice by a gunman with a history of anger toward Republicans. Brady had left early, and was with Shimkus at the townhouse when a former staffer called and told him about the shooting. Shimkus reached Paulsen, who was headed to the White House to get some constituents in for a tour. All three went to the hospital that day. Over the next several months, they supported Scalise through nine surgeries, coining the mantra “four on the field” to honor Scalise’s goal of recovering enough to get back on the baseball diamond the next year. “They were incredible,” Scalise says. “For the first few months, it really was hard walking up the stairs in a four-story house. They would help me get my stuff.”
While Scalise recovered, Paulsen began his own, albeit less dire, struggle to win reelection in a suburban Minneapolis district that had soured on President Trump. Paulsen’s roommates checked in with him frequently as the election approached. “That let me know they cared about me,” Paulsen says. They were, of course, disappointed by the loss. “Erik — we tease him — he’s the epitome of Minnesota nice,” Shimkus says. “The district makes their decision. ... But the nation is worse off.”
Six years earlier, Scalise had brought redfish from the Gulf of Mexico to Washington, promising to cook it for his roommates. It sat in the freezer for years, causing a running joke in the house. When Paulsen lost, they scrambled to put the dinner together in their last few weeks as a foursome. Scalise bought fresher fish from Louisiana, and they feasted on jambalaya, gumbo and mashed sweet potato casserole. The congressmen filmed it, and Scalise’s staff made the video as a keepsake. (Brady joked that they also wanted proof that “Scalise would cook anything other than popcorn.”)
“It was a really special evening,” says Scalise. “Knowing Erik is going to be moving on, it was well worth the wait.” The food was a success, Paulsen notes: “I hate to say it, but it may have been better than Minnesota walleye.”
His photo will go up on the wall next to pictures of three other congressmen who once lived in the house. After Congress wrapped up on Dec. 21, Paulsen went back to Minnesota. As for the other three, they already have another roommate lined up.