Majority Whip Steve Scalise says he abhors hate groups, but acknowledged on Monday that he may have spoken at a white supremacist conference led by the notorious former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in 2002.
“I didn't know who all of these groups were and I detest any kind of hate group,” Scalise, the third highest-ranking Republican leader in the House, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “For anyone to suggest that I was involved with a group like that is insulting and ludicrous.”
The interview came hours after Scalise’s office acknowledged that a report claiming that the Louisiana congressman spoke at a gathering of the Duke-run European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) as a state legislator in 2002 could be accurate. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist organizations, has listed EURO as a “white nationalist” hate group.
According to NBC News, an aide to Scalise said it was “highly likely” the Congressman spoke before the group, but Scalise told the Times-Picayune he had no memory of the event in question. He blamed a combination overzealous campaigning and an overworked staff for his alleged appearance.
“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,” Scalise said. “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.”
The Democratic National Committee pressed Scalise to come clean on the speaking engagement, saying in a statement that the congressman's explanation was insufficient. "That weak attempt at an explanation doesn't pass the smell test and raises far more questions than it answers," DNC communications director Mo Elleithee said. "Does he not believe that speaking to an anti-semitic hate group legitimizes them and elevates their racist and divisive existence? How abhorrent does a group have to be to decline their invitation? These questions are just the tip of the iceberg -- Rep. Scalise and all of Republican leadership need to start giving some real answers soon."
The statement from Scalise's office was prompted by a report from blogger Lamar White Jr., who noted that posts on the white supremacist site Stormfront had praised Scalise for addressing EURO in person and being attentive to their concerns.
“Representative Scalise brought into sharp focus the dire circumstances pervasive in many important, under-funded needs of the community at the expense of graft within the Housing and Urban Development Fund, an apparent give-away to a selective group based on race,” one commenter with the username Alsace Hebert wrote on the site at the time.
In 2004, after Scalise announced a run for Congress, Hebert wrote on the site: “Those that attended the EURO conference in New Orleans will recall that Scalise was a speaker, offering his support for issues that are of concern to us. I suppose if Duke does not make the election for whatever reason, this gentleman would be a good alternative.”
Scalise's office admitted earlier in a statement that the claims on Stormfront that he visited the EURO gathering could be accurate.
“Throughout his career in public service, Mr. Scalise has spoken to hundreds of different groups with a broad range of viewpoints,” Scalise's spokeswoman Moira Bagley Smith said in an statement on Monday. “In every case, he was building support for his policies, not the other way around. In 2002, he made himself available to anyone who wanted to hear his proposal to eliminate slush funds that wasted millions of taxpayer dollars as well as his opposition to a proposed tax increase on middle-class families. 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.”
Duke was hardly an obscure figure in Louisiana politics at the time: He gained national attention as Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Klu Klax Klan and especially for his multiple runs for various political offices in the state, which included a successful election to the state House of Representatives in 1989, as well as a 1991 run for governor in which he forced a surprise runoff against Democrat Edwin Edwards.
"Everyone knew who he was," Scalise told the Times-Picayune. "I would not go to any group he was a part of."
Duke, for his part, told The Washington Post that Scalise was a "nice guy" and that his aides had invited to the EURO event, but that he didn't personally watch Scalise speak (his own speech was delivered remotely) and was unsure if the Congressman was aware of the conference's political agenda.
The 2002 EURO conference occurred the same year that Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott stepped down as majority leader after praising former Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 1948 run for president on a segregationist ticket, an incident that prompted greater scrutiny of Lott’s ties to white supremacist groups — including an appearance before the Council of Conservative Citizens, another SPLC-listed hate group. Lott apologized for his remarks about Thurmond, but left his position under pressure from Republican leaders who were afraid he would drag down the party’s image.
Scalise can expect a similar round of investigation. Online commenters Monday were quick to highlight his vote as a state legislator against making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday in 2004, one of only six "nays." Sites like Little Green Footballs dug up a Roll Call article from 1999 in which Scalise discussed how he might compete with Duke in a special election for Congress by stressing electability:
Another potential candidate, state Rep. Steve Scalise (R), said he embraces many of the same “conservative” views as Duke, but is far more viable.
“The novelty of David Duke has worn off,” said Scalise. “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.”
A spokesman for Speaker John Boehner did not immediately respond to the Scalise news, but some Republican officials and right-leaning commentators offered up early reactions on Monday night.
"How the hell does somebody show up at a David Duke organized event in 2002 and claim ignorance?" wrote Erick Erickson, co-founder of the influential conservative site Red State, in a blog post. "Trent Lott was driven from the field ... for something less than this."
Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa defended Scalise to The Washington Post's Robert Costa, noting that "Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners."
The Republican governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, also stood by Scalise in a statement.
"I know Congressman Scalise to be a good man who is fair-minded and kindhearted," Jindal said. "I'm confident he absolutely rejects racism in all forms."
Congressman Cedric Richmond, an African American Democrat, also publicly vouched for Scalise, telling the Times Picayune he doesn't think the Congressman "has a racist bone in his body."
More recently, Mississippi state officials and national GOP strategists attacked tea party candidate Chris McDaniel during his primary run against Republican Sen. Thad Cochran for allegedly agreeing to appear at an event that featured a segregationist vendor. McDaniel denied planning to participate in the event, but his staff confirmed to reporters that he previously addressed a neo-Confederate group.
Scalise was elected to the number-three position in the House GOP leadership earlier this year, after a reshuffling prompted by former Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss in a primary race to conservative challenger David Brat.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the name of the blogger who first reported on the Stormfront postings.