U.S. House leaders are standing by Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Jefferson Parish Republican who has said he regrets appearing at a white nationalist event in Metairie in 2002.
Even as Scalise admitted to giving a speech to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO, calling the appearance “a mistake I regret,” the event’s organizer raised questions over whether Scalise actually participated in a different event on the same day at the same hotel.
Either way, Scalise has the backing of top leaders and appears to be secure in keeping his third-in-command role in the GOP-controlled U.S. House.
“More than a decade ago, Rep. Scalise made an error in judgment, and he was right to acknowledge it was wrong and inappropriate,” said U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Like many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, I know Steve to be a man of high integrity and good character. He has my full confidence as our whip, and he will continue to do great and important work for all Americans.”
Similarly, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Scalise “acknowledged he made a mistake and has condemned the views that organization espouses.”
“I’ve known him as a friend for many years and I know that he does not share the beliefs of that organization,” McCarthy said.
Scalise, in a statement Tuesday, said that when he spoke at an event held by the EURO, a group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader and Louisiana political figure David Duke, he was trying to build up support for policies like lower taxes and cutting government spending. He was the state representative for the area where the meeting was held.
“One of the many groups that I spoke to regarding this critical legislation was a group whose views I wholeheartedly condemn,” Scalise said. “It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold. I am very disappointed that anyone would try to infer otherwise for political gain. As a Catholic, these groups hold views that are vehemently opposed to my own personal faith, and I reject that kind of hateful bigotry. Those who know me best know I have always been passionate about helping, serving and fighting for every family that I represent. And I will continue to do so.”
The quick push to reaffirm support for Scalise among the House majority’s top brass seemed to hush many who had questioned Scalise’s continuing leadership role.
Fox News host Sean Hannity called for the ouster of the entire GOP leadership slate, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told media through a spokesman that the allegations were “very troubling” but stopped short of calling for his removal.
But a wide range of leaders — including state GOP head Roger Villere, U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Gov. Bobby Jindal — have come out in support of Scalise and dismissed the speech as a long-ago mistake.
“Steve is a good and decent person who doesn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body,” Vitter said. “A mistake in not researching this group further and in accepting the invitation is a lot different from malice.”
It’s not just the Republicans.
U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat and Louisiana’s only black member of Congress, said he had never heard of EURO before the Scalise controversy and he supports Scalise in the fiasco. The two have known each other for years, and Richmond was serving in the state House with Scalise at the time of the 2002 speech.
“It’s unfortunate, because for the people who know Steve, they know it’s very contrary to his character and his actions,” Richmond said. “I know him and I feel confident in saying that’s not him. I’m sure he did not know who this group was that he was going and speaking to.”
Meanwhile, Kenny Knight, a top adviser to Duke who claims he invited Scalise to the Landmark Best Western in May 2002, told several media outlets that Scalise was there to speak to a local civic association, and the EURO event Knight also had organized took place later in the day.
“He spoke early in the day to a contingent of people, prior to the conference kicking off,” Knight told Slate.com. “He was not there as a guest speaker at the conference.”
Knight did not respond Tuesday to phone messages and emails by The Advocate.
Duke similarly distanced Scalise from EURO’s view when speaking to The Advocate at his home in Mandeville on Tuesday.
“He was not a member of my organization and had nothing to do with my organization,” he said.
Scalise has said he spoke to several groups as he advocated against the Stelly Plan, a tax-swap that sought to reduce some sales taxes on items such as groceries and utilities while raising the state’s income tax for middle- and upper-income earners. The plan, hailed as an attempt to reduce some of the tax burden on the poor, was approved by state legislators and voters in 2002, but it largely has been dismantled in the years since, following a pushback from middle-class taxpayers who said they ended up paying more than expected.
Scalise said he also frequently advocated eliminating lawmaker “slush funds.” And, at the time, the Jefferson Parish Housing Authority was under fire from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for thousands in questionable contracts.
Gambit, in a report on the EURO gathering at the time, said the event would offer training to people planning to run for office or start community groups. It was scaled back from an international conference to a workshop of about 50 people following a backlash and threat of protests, Gambit reported.
Scalise’s appearance at the EURO event was first reported by a blog that relied on posts to the neo-Nazi and white nationalist message board Stormfront.
A Stormfront commenter who attended the conference wrote about Scalise’s appearance just days after it, noting that 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.”
The same message-board writer again brought up Scalise several months after the event.
“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,” the Stormfront poster wrote in 2004. “I suppose if Duke does not make the election for whatever reason, this gentleman would be a good alternative.”
Knight, speaking to Slate, argued that some EURO attendees may have arrived early and heard Scalise’s speech, thinking it was part of the official program.
“I don’t think Steve was aware that there was a small contingent of people who came and sat in the audience prior to the EURO meeting,” Knight said.
Sara Pagones of The Advocate St. Tammany Parish bureau contributed to this report. Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.