Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House majority whip, acknowledged Monday that he spoke at a gathering hosted by white nationalist leaders while serving as a state representative in 2002, thrusting a racial controversy into House Republican ranks days before the party assumes control of both congressional chambers. The 48-year-old Scalise, who ascended to the House GOP's third-ranking post earlier this year, confirmed through an adviser that he once appeared at a convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization.
Earlier today, the Huffington Post reported that House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) is "facing questions about allegations that he was a featured speaker" at a white-supremacist event in 2002. According to the allegations, first reported by blogger Lamar White Jr., Scalise "spoke at an international conference of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization headed by Nazi and former Klan leader David Duke."
There's apparently no recording of the remarks from the Louisiana Republican, who was a member of the state legislature at the time, but a neo-Nazi website documented Scalise's role at the gathering 12 years ago.
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In a written statement issued by the Republican leader's office, the congressman's spokesperson said, "Throughout his career in public service, Mr. Scalise has spoken to hundreds of different groups with a broad range of viewpoints," said Moira Bagley, Scalise's spokesperson. "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."
The statement added, "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."
As explanations go, this one might need a little work.
If these reports are accurate, and there are no important, exculpatory details, one of the top leaders of the House Republican majority appeared at a white-supremacist gathering. Scalise's office insists the far-right congressman "has never been affiliated with the abhorrent group in question," but when a politician agrees to speak to white nationalists, at an event organized by a group led by a neo-Nazi, denying an "affiliation" is inherently problematic.
Indeed, it raises a host of related questions, which Scalise will probably have to try to answer fairly soon. Was he aware of the white supremacist group's ideas when he agreed to speak at their event? During his remarks, did he make any effort to reject their racist views or agenda? At what point, exactly, did the Republican lawmaker realize who he was speaking to? Did this lead him to leave immediately or did he welcome these voters' support for his campaign?
Two years later, Scalise was one of only a handful of Louisiana lawmakers to vote against the creation of a Martin Luther King Day. Did he discuss this during his appearance at the racist event?
It's not unrealistic to think a story like this one puts Scalise's leadership role in real jeopardy. The other House Republican leaders are reportedly "aware of" this story and "are monitoring" developments, and it's fairly easy to imagine Speaker John Boehner and his team deciding that the Louisiana congressman will need to step down before the leadership elections next month.
Republicans have invested a fair amount of energy in recent years, claiming that they're committed to improving their outreach to minority communities. Having a House GOP leader who spoke at a white-supremacist event arguably undermines that outreach in an obvious and hard-to-explain way.
Note, the same year that Scalise spoke to the white nationalists, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) ultimately lost his leadership post in the U.S. Senate after he said the nation would have been better off electing Strom Thurmond president in 1948 -- the year Thurmond ran on a segregationist platform.
Republican leaders decided the racial element of Lott's comments was simply too much for the party to support. Scalise's participation in a white-supremacist gathering is every bit as serious, if not more so.