Scalise Up Close

So it looks like Rep. Steve Scalise will gut it out and retain his House leadership position, mainly because after a couple of false starts he finally expressed “regret” over speaking at a David Duke sponsored white supremacist event in 2002. I think this could come back to haunt the House GOP, but before leaving the topic, let’s consult some local Louisiana experts from the New Orleans Advocate about his self-defense. Here’s James Gill:

To accept an invitation from Howie Farrell and Kenny Knight, then act surprised they were fronting for David Duke, is like turning up at a rally with Goebbels and Goering and wondering how come there are swastikas all over the place.

When Steve Scalise gave a speech to Duke’s European-American Unity and Rights Organization in 2002, no sentient being around here could have been unaware who Farrell and Knight were. They had for years been Duke’s top henchmen, playing leading roles in his campaigns during a brief, but spectacular, political ascendancy. They never lost faith in his racist ideology and, Duke says, were the ones who arranged for Scalise to deliver his speech.

Back in 2002, Scalise was a GOP state rep from Metairie, as Duke had been a decade earlier. Duke had represented a different district, but when Scalise spoke to EURO, he had no reason to fear losing votes as a result. Although Duke had failed to get elected as a U.S. senator or governor, he had won a majority of the white vote both times, and the white vote was what counted on Scalise’s side of the 17th Street Canal….

[C]laiming not to have known what EURO was all about will not get him out of this jam. Nobody could possibly believe that he was that clueless. Age 36 at the time, he had seen Duke, notwithstanding his Klan and Nazi affiliations, rise to become a major force in Louisiana politics, making Farrell and Knight household names in the process.

And here’s Stephanie Grace:

This is what I remember about the first time I met Steve Scalise nearly 20 years ago: He told me he was like David Duke without the baggage.

I was a new reporter covering Jefferson Parish, and Scalise, now the majority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, was just starting out in the Louisiana Legislature (I’m going from memory, but the exchange obviously stuck with me). It would be several years before I would fully decode just what he meant by the sentiment, which is similar to statements he would later make to at least one Washington news outlet, and what it said about Jefferson Parish and Louisiana politics.

The “baggage,” of course, was Duke’s past, his racist and anti-Semitic views and his former role as a KKK grand wizard. Scalise disavowed Duke then, as he did once again this week, when blogger Lamar White Jr. revealed that Scalise had spoken in 2002 at a meeting hosted by a Duke-founded white nationalist group.

But the other part of the sentence, the part about their similarity, was the rub. Scalise may have been naïve about how to express himself to a newcomer, but he was already a savvy politician who knew that, even though Duke had lost the governor’s race a few years earlier, Duke voters were still around. And those Duke voters also were potential Scalise voters.

This is, in effect, a dirty little secret of Louisiana politics, and the context in which Scalise made the fateful decision to show up at the EURO conference in 2002. The truth, as Scalise suggested that day, was that the actual governmental philosophy Duke espoused isn’t far off from what was becoming mainstream conservative thought, what with its suspicion of taxes, set-asides and safety net programs such as welfare. The problem in his view was the messenger, not the message

.

That sounds about right. But the idea that Scalise wasn’t spending a lot of time thinking about David Duke and how to win over his supporters is looking more threadbare each day.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.