House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, the third most powerful Republican in the new House of Representatives, has apparently survived the storm.
But he certainly got awfully wet.
Just days before the new Congress was sworn in on Jan. 6, a Louisiana blogger named Lamar White Jr. broke the story that Scalise, who was elected to the GOP leadership post in June 2014, had given a speech in 2002 to a group of neo-Nazis and white supremacists organized by former Klan leader David Duke.
Initially, Scalise said he didn’t remember speaking to the workshop held by the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), a well-known Louisiana-based hate group started by Duke under a slightly different name in 2000. Then he said that he probably had, but had no idea of the politics of the group, and in any case now regretted his “mistake” in appearing at its gathering. Louisiana Republican leaders and, eventually, most national GOP leaders fell in behind him, saying Scalise was a good man who’d made a simple error in judgment.
But Scalise’s claim of ignorance was almost impossible to believe.
Scalise was a state representative in his 20s when Duke ran for the U.S. Senate in 1990 and governor in 1991. Duke ultimately lost both races, but he earned more than 600,000 votes in each of them, as well as global notoriety. Duke and his organizations, including EURO, received enormous amounts of publicity between 1989 and the 2002 meeting.
Kenny Knight, a longtime Duke aide, told The Washington Post that Scalise had attended the EURO meeting and was the first to speak. But he soon contradicted that claim in comments to The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune.
Knight and his former girlfriend Barbara Noble told the New Orleans paper that Scalise had actually attended an earlier neighborhood association meeting hosted by Knight in the same hotel meeting room a few hours before the EURO conference. Noble said she and Knight left after that meeting and did not attend the EURO gathering. But that is false. There is no record at all of the association cited by Knight. And a photo in a 2002 newsletter shows Knight speaking to the EURO crowd.
Scalise also claimed that at the time of the EURO meeting, he was speaking to any group that would have him as he worked against a tax reform plan known as the Stelly Plan. But as blogger White pointed out after breaking the initial story, the Stelly plan had not even been heard in a legislative committee yet, and the campaign against it by Scalise and other conservatives only began months after the EURO meeting.
In fact, Scalise, who hails from the same Louisiana parish as Duke and Knight, may have had some real affinities with EURO. In 1999, Roll Call reported that Scalise “said he embraces many of the same ‘conservative’ views as Duke, but is more viable.” Scalise also reportedly told a columnist that his politics were similar to Duke’s, but “without the baggage.” In 1999 and again in 2004, he was among lonely groups of three and six Louisiana legislators, respectively, who voted against a state Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. And in 1996, he was one of two legislative committee members who tried to kill a resolution apologizing for slavery.
Despite a real political storm and widespread skepticism about his claims, even from some Republicans, Scalise managed to hang on to his whip position. But it seemed clear that if he were linked to any other racist groups or events, Steve Scalise’s career as a national politician would be gone with the wind.