The early morning conversation outside a baseball field in Alexandria, Va., struck U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, as “weird” at the time — and chilling later.
DeSantis is certain that he and Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., encountered James Hodgkinson of Belleville, Ill., moments before police say Hodgkinson opened fire on a Republican baseball practice. The gunfire injured House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and three others. Hodgkinson, who frequently ranted against Republicans and President Donald Trump on social media, was shot at the scene and later died.
DeSantis and Duncan were leaving Wednesday’s practice a few minutes early when a man approached them in the parking lot and asked whether the team practicing nearby was Republican or Democrat.
“It was kind of a weird thing. I had no idea the guy would be violent or anything,” DeSantis said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post. Reflecting on it hours later, DeSantis said, the encounter seemed “slightly confrontational. He wasn’t smiling…It was kind of forceful. It wasn’t friendly. It was a little odd.”
Duncan said in an CNBC interview that he told the man the team was Republican and “he said ‘K, thanks.’ There was nothing earth-shattering about it.”
DeSantis said he didn’t give the parking lot encounter a second thought as he rode with Duncan and a Duncan staffer to Capitol Hill. But when he saw on TV that Scalise and others had been shot, he instantly recalled the strange conversation. And when Hodgkinson’s name was made public, DeSantis said he did a Google search that left no doubt he had spoken with the gunman.
“Things shock you in the world, like a terrorist attack, but when you had just been there a few minutes before…it’s almost surreal,” DeSantis said.
U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, also left the practice early so he could drive two of his sons to their last day of school. Based on a text message with his wife, Rooney placed his departure time at 7:04 a.m., or five minutes before the shooting began.
Rooney, who plays first base, said he had been chatting in the infield with second baseman Scalise and practicing double plays just before he left.
“In a weird way I kind of feel guilty that I left early…I’m usually with Steve,” said Rooney.
Rooney said the Republican team has used the same field for practice for several years. For roughly six weeks before the game, the team practices from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. on days Congress is in session, Rooney said.
“It’s not a secret that we’re there,” Rooney said.
Because Scalise is a member of House leadership, a security detail accompanies him. A U.S. Capitol Police officers was injured by gunfire and another suffered “secondary injuries” at the scene, the FBI said.
“Thank God his detail was there…It could have been a lot worse,” Rooney said.
Rooney said a black SUV with at least two officers in it regularly parks to block a gate on the first base side of the practice field. DeSantis said he was in a parking lot on the first base side when he encountered the gunman.
When the gunman began firing, he was behind a fence on the third base side of the field.
Rooney, who grew up in Palm Beach County, had the game-winning hit in last year’s congressional game. DeSantis played on a Florida team in the Little League World Series and at Yale. Two other House members from Florida, Reps. Matt Gaetz and Dennis Ross, also play on the Republican team but did not attend Wednesday’s practice.
On Wednesday afternoon, Republicans and Democrats said they planned to play Thursday night’s annual congressional game as scheduled.
“I’m glad we’re playing…I just don’t want this lunatic to dictate what we do or don’t do,” Rooney said.
Rooney said the game, which raises money for charity, is “one of the few times we get together as Democrats and Republicans and pretend that we’re athletes and play on a big league field. It’s pretty fun…In the partisan environment, it’s one of the few things we do that’s a collaborative effort for a singular cause.”