It had been a long week for U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson when his bus rolled up in front of Shealy’s Bar-B-Que last Thursday.
The veteran Republican politician from just up the road in Springdale was ready for some pork – just not the variety usually served up in Washington, where homegrown government spending is almost always on the menu. No, in Leesville at the end of a yearly late-summer odyssey across the 2nd Congressional District, it was time for some low-key, friendly conversation and destination dining.
“This is a tradition, having been to Shealy’s for over 40 years,” Rep. Wilson said as he polished off a small bowl of banana pudding.
The pudding was the apparent last movement in a mid-afternoon symphony of Southern cuisine that the 72-year-old, 10-term congressman had anticipated for days. In the week leading up to Shealy’s, he had traversed the lazy two-lane blacktops of rural Barnwell and Orangeburg counties and navigated the city streets of Aiken, Lexington and Columbia on a meticulously orchestrated bus tour of his home district.
“I could not leave without the banana pudding – and sometimes it’s embarrassing to have it all over my hands,” Rep. Wilson confessed, clean-handed and with a grin, as his wide-eyed young press liaison chuckled dutifully at his side.
On the way out the door of Shealy’s, headed down to the Lowcountry for a long Labor Day weekend with family, Rep. Wilson stopped suddenly to add dessert to his dessert. He marched up to the soft-serve ice cream machine and made himself a piled-high sugar cone.
One more taste for the road, he reasoned.
Yes, of course, the culminating tour event in Leesville had all the makings of a political photo opportunity and de facto campaign stop, as Rep. Wilson faces another re-election campaign looming in a few short months. Advance team members arrived ahead of Rep. Wilson and performed their almost-inconspicuous security sweep, scanning the room for any threatening characters who might be standing in the buffet line or sitting at one of the long convivial dining tables draped in blue-checkered vinyl.
A few minutes later, Rep. Wilson’s wife Roxanne strolled in and claimed her spot back in one of the smaller dining rooms, just around the corner from the banana pudding. The congressman himself, encircled by well-appointed staffers wearing tiny Palmetto flag lapel pins, walked into the main room a few seconds later and eyed the buffet.
Rep. Wilson’s gaze fell on a steaming pan of liver nips – dumplings filled with a beef liver paste, drenched in savory brown gravy, that have been a Thursdays-only staple at Shealy’s for years.
“When I was on Congressman Floyd Spence’s staff, he’d always get the liver nips,” said this now-veteran conservative politico who once was a young aide to the venerable Rep. Spence. Wilson won a special election to succeed Spence after the 73-year-old Democrat-turned-Republican died in August 2001, having served almost 30 years in Congress.
Before he could fill his own plate at Shealy’s buffet line, Rep. Wilson had hands to shake and questions to field from well-wishers and onlookers. Batesburg-Leesville Mayor Lancer Shull showed up for a handshake, a brief conversation and a photo op but opted not to settle in for lunch.
Thus, the mayor would miss Rep. Wilson’s response, offered casually over a bowl of fried pulley-bones, when asked later to opine about the key to Batesburg-Leesville’s economic future.
“It’s really simple: I-20,” the congressman said without a moment’s hesitation, all the while stripping chicken meat from the bone. “By being on I-20, Batesburg-Leesville’s really in the center of so much economic activity. So I look forward to working with the mayor and working with the county council members from the region, and with (State Rep.) Cal Forrest and other members of the legislative delegation. Any way that I can work with local officials, I’m ready.”
Earlier in the week, Rep. Wilson’s bus tour had taken him to several multimillion-dollar business investments in the 2nd Congressional District — from an auto parts manufacturer in Richland Northeast to the new baseball stadium on the banks of the Savannah River in North Augusta and finally, down to the groundbreaking of a fledgling industrial park in Orangeburg County. All had been carefully scheduled to reflect the economic vibrancy of the region, which Rep. Wilson attributes in large part to the Trump Administration’s Republican-flavored economic policies.
“What’s valuable is to see that the tax cuts have had such an incredible effect of providing for the growth of jobs across the district,” he said, “whether it be in fast food restaurants with entry-level jobs or manufacturing facilities like Koyo in Blythewood or Swiss Krono in Barnwell. The growth of these opportunities gives me the encouragement to keep working hard.”
When Batesburg-Leesville’s mayor — and a zealous member of the local press armed with a constantly-clicking camera – moved in to visit with Rep. Wilson a couple steps from the buffet, others took notice and also walked up to shake hands and chat. The usual, often-very-personal constituency chatter ensued about such topics as veterans affairs, Social Security and the general dysfunction and political polarization plaguing Washington.
When Rep. Wilson had satisfied his constituency and finally got the chance to start fixing his plate, he knew he had to dip one dish for sure alongside Shealy’s much-celebrated fried chicken and a few pieces of breaded-and-fried organ meat:
“The best string beans in the free world,” he said, revealing (almost in a whisper) a secret ingredient confided to him years ago by one of the restaurant’s namesakes.
And have the tasty string beans Rep. Wilson did, among other treats, on his annual stop in Leesville.
After spending some well-earned downtime at the coast with the grandkids, and after posting the encouraging social media note expected of a sitting congressman as Hurricane Dorian approached early this week, it soon will be business-as-usual again for the man who represents this fiercely conservative slice of the Midlands in the U.S. House of Representatives. Congress will be back in session on Monday.
No doubt, Joe Wilson will be thinking — at least a little bit — about what’s for Thursday lunch back home in Lexington County, South Carolina.
Story by Tony Baughman / September 10, 2019