At 2:45 a.m., the last place you expect members of the South Carolina House of Representatives to be is sitting at a table at Denny’s on Two Notch Road.
But a few years ago, that’s where state Rep. Gary Simrill and other members of the “Eatin’ Caucus” found themselves after a long session at the State House.
“I think even the cooks were concerned about us,” the York County Republican said. “Everyone looked like they were thinking, ‘Are you sure you should be here?’”
Simrill is one of a handful of members of the Eatin’ Caucus — “no ‘g,’” he likes to note — a loose-knit group of House members who come together around food.
In fact, as legislators return Tuesday to wrap up work on the budget, lunch hours may be some of the few times that politics are set aside.
Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate list Main Street eateries like Miyo’s, Roll Call Deli and Which Wich as favorites, citing their proximity to the State House as a top reason they regularly return.
For the Eatin’ Caucus, the choice is often Harper’s Restaurant in Five Points.
“The standard saying is, ‘We can go anywhere as long as it’s Harper’s,’” Simrill said.
The Eatin’ Caucus used to assemble exclusively at John Paul’s Armadillo Oil Company, which Simrill said was the only place Rep. Jay Lucas, speaker pro tem of the House and “de facto chairman” of the Eatin’ Caucus, would eat. Once it closed, Harper’s became the group’s new mainstay, though they sometimes venture from the Five Points eatery to places like California Dreaming and Rockaway’s.
But Lucas, R-Darlington, isn’t the only state legislator with a particular palate. Others have their own food-related quirks that come out when they share meals.
“Nobody understands food and how it’s cooked like Luke Rankin,” Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said of the Republican Horry County senator.
“If he’s ordering Brussels sprouts, he wants to know if it’s peeled, if it’s shaved ... I’ve seen servers quit right there because he asks so many questions,” Lourie joked.
Lourie and Rankin said they often go to lunch with their fellow senators in groups that are almost always bipartisan.
“It’s not divided by party lines as much as it is by who’s going where,” Lourie said. “The Senate is a very fraternal place. People in opposite parties get along very well.”
Even members of the Senate’s ultra-conservative William Wallace Caucus have broken bread with Senate Democrats, though caucus member Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, wouldn’t say which ones.
“That may not look good for them,” he said, half joking.
The Eatin’ Caucus also has members of both parties, though most are Republicans. Simrill said the proportions “wax and wane” with the distribution of each party in the House. Simrill listed eight current members, including himself, and Lucas recalled past meals with nearly 20 attending. The group has been in the State House for more than a decade.
Another thing the Eatin’ Caucus shares with the House is a set of rules, though those of the caucus are slightly less serious than parliamentary procedure.
Each prospective member must be unanimously approved by current members, and Lucas presides over each vote in a ceremonial sweater vest. Membership criteria include extensive knowledge of the “Andy Griffith” show and music trivia from the 1970s and 1980s. The early caucus members initially found common interests in these topics.
A good sense of humor is also a requirement.
“One of the biggest rules is that you have to be able to tell a joke and you have to be able to take a joke,” Simrill said, noting that caucus members’ jokes have sometimes even made it to the House floor.
If potential members do not receive unanimous votes, they are still permitted to eat with the caucus, though they will not be an official member. Among “guest” diners: Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, Gov. Nikki Haley and even some political reporters.
But meal conversation rarely focuses on legislative policy.
“Our No. 1 purpose is eating,” Simrill said. “We’re probably one of the closest-knit groups in the House. We don’t let the politics of the day give us indigestion.”
Still, for most legislators, lunch is an extension of work. Many order in and eat lunch in their offices, while others talk policy over a meal out with colleagues.
“Most of what we talk about is what happened during the day or what is getting ready to happen,” Lourie said. “But we also talk about family, sports, business ... normal topics of conversation.”
Lourie, too, likes to crack a few jokes at his lunchmates’ expense.
He said that he occasionally shares meals with Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, and that the gubernatorial candidate can sometimes be a bit cheap.
“Vincent Sheheen’s two most-used phrases are ‘You want to go eat lunch?’ and ‘I left my wallet in my car,’” Lourie said. “He’s fiscally conservative. That’s a trait you look for in a governor.”