Rep. Steve Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives and a Tea Party favorite, is facing a political firestorm over the revelation that he spoke before a white supremacist organization as a Louisiana state legislator in 2002.
Just a week before the start of a new Congress, the new House majority whip is fighting for his political life. His address to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), a group founded by former KKK leader David Duke, was first revealed by a Louisiana blogger on Sunday.
Confronted with the report, Scalise told the Times-Picayune that he did not remember speaking to the white nationalist organization but did not deny that he had done so.
“I detest any kind of hate group,” Scalise said. “I don’t support any of the things I have read about this group, but I spoke to a lot of groups during that period. I went all throughout south Louisiana. I spoke to the League of Women Voters, a pretty liberal group... I still went and spoke to them. I spoke to any group that called, and there were a lot of groups calling.”
Scalise’s press secretary reinforced that line of logic in a statement, saying: “Throughout his career in public service, Mr. Scalise has spoken to hundreds of different groups with a broad range of viewpoints. In every case, he was building support for his policies, not the other way around… He has never been affiliated with the abhorrent group in question. The hate-fueled ignorance and intolerance that group projects is in stark contradiction to what Mr. Scalise believes and practices as a father, a husband, and a devoted Catholic.”
But the idea that Scalise might have been entirely ignorant about the nature of the white supremacist organization strains belief, said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“The fact that Scalise was pandering for votes and support at a white supremacy event is horrifying. This is David Duke’s organization, not someone no one has ever heard of,” she told The Daily Beast. In 1991, Duke, a convicted felon and former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, had been the Republican Party gubernatorial nominee in Louisiana, drawing national derision. “You’re a Louisiana politician. You cannot plead ignorance about David Duke.”
Far from pleading ignorance about Duke, Scalise was described by Roll Call in 1999 as saying he “embraces many of the same ‘conservative’ views as Duke, but is far more viable” as a candidate for an open congressional seat.“The novelty of David Duke has worn off,” said Scalise then. “The voters in this district are smart enough to realize that they need to get behind someone who not only believes in the issues they care about, but also can get elected. Duke has proven that he can’t get elected, and that’s the first and most important thing.” Electability, rather than the odiousness of Duke’s views, seemed to be pre-eminent in Scalise’s mind at the time.
The 2002 EURO event in question also received local coverage, further undercutting any suggestion that Scalise was unaware of the group’s background. An alternative weekly newspaper in New Orleans, The Gambit, wrote in 2002 that a baseball team from Iowa refused to stay at the Best Western where EURO was holding its event, citing the organization’s “controversial views.”
The events EURO held in later years were flagrantly in support of white supremacy, attested Beirich, who attended several gatherings in 2004 and 2005. During those instances, two to three years after Scalise is said to have spoken before the group, the rooms were filled with Confederate flags, white pride slogans, and racist merchandise.
As the controversy unfurled late Monday, it created some odd bedfellows.
Scalise received unexpected support from black Democrat Rep. Cedric Richmond, who told Times-Picayune reporter Julia O’Donoghue that he doesn’t “think Steve has a racist bone in his body” and that the Republican is being used as a “scapegoat to score political points.”
The House Republican whip also received statements of support Monday evening from the Louisiana Republican Party and Gov. Bobby Jindal, who released a statement calling Scalise “fair-minded and kindhearted.”
But conservative Erick Erickson went after Scalise in a scathing blog post, joining the Louisiana Democratic Party in a show of incredulity.
“How the hell does somebody show up at a David Duke organized event in 2002 and claim ignorance?” Erickson wrote. “How do you not investigate?… [Sen.] Trent Lott was driven from the field in 2001 for something less than this.”
Scalise’s visit to a white supremacist convention has spurred deeper scrutiny of his past as a state legislator, uncovering further unsavory details. In 2004, for example, Scalise voted “no” on a resolution to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday, 21 years after President Reagan made it a federal holiday.
Some longtime local acquaintances are struggling to square the man they know with the ugly associations.
“We grew up in the same part of Jefferson Parish. I’m of Jewish ancestry, the congressman is of Sicilian and Italian… it’s completely out of character,” said Mark Zelden, a political consultant and lobbyist in New Orleans who has known Scalise for more than 15 years. Growing up in the area, “you wouldn’t harbor views of the kind remotely of the sort of this organization he is purported to have spoken to 12 years ago,” Zelden continued, and as a Sicilian and Italian, Scalise probably “would not have been welcome even if he had wanted to participate.”
It is, Zelden said, “unthinkable” that Scalise would harbor these views.
But whether Scalise is prejudiced or shares the views of EURO is beside the point, said Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Scalise was willing to go there to get supporters,” she said.
Now the question is whether the Republican leadership—which has struggled to reach out to minority voters—will continue to support Scalise and bear the burden of his David Duke-laden baggage in the new Congress.