Washington — Steve Scalise has said it plainly: He rejects bigotry of all kinds.
But it seems equally clear he does not — or at least, did not — reject bigots of all kinds.
That’s a big part of why Scalise, a conservative Republican who represents the overwhelmingly white, mostly suburban 1st Congressional District in and around New Orleans, has been in the news not so much for his performance as House majority whip as for his speaking appearance in 2002 at a meeting in Metairie of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, a white-victimhood group founded by Louisiana neo-Nazi and ex-Klan leader David Duke.
And it points up a persistent problem that affects Scalise and some of his colleagues: As is said of some types of wine, Southern politicians do not travel well.
A Louisiana blogger “broke” the EUROgate story just before New Year’s — 12 years late — and it’s been fanned nationally by Scalise’s No. 3 ranking in the House leadership. Scalise acknowledged addressing the group, although he has said he doesn’t remember the occasion and was unaware of EURO’s essentially anti-Semitic and white-supremacist ideology.
But no one has denied that the invitation to Scalise came from Kenny Knight, his neighbor in Jefferson and a longtime political adviser to Duke — an association of which Scalise was certainly aware.
Scalise says he spoke to lots of groups at the time, without discriminating among them. An open-minded attitude is no flaw in a politician, but it’s not difficult to imagine invitations Scalise would have rejected out of hand — say, from the East Jefferson representatives (if such existed) of NARAL Pro-Choice America or of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
But apparently, Duke’s running buddy was not beyond the pale. Which is not altogether surprising, as Duke himself was not exactly persona non grata in East Jefferson.
Duke has run many times for public office, but he has won only once: in 1989, when he was elected to the state House as a Republican from an East Jefferson district close to the one that sent Scalise to Baton Rouge six years later.
Duke lost races for U.S. senator in 1990 and for governor in 1991. But in both those elections, he won a clear majority of the white vote, and he easily carried the 1st Congressional District (which has since been redrawn but was then centered on East Jefferson).
It beggars belief to think that a candidate such as Duke — who has been shown in newspaper photographs wearing a swastika armband and a Nazi uniform as a young man at a public demonstration — would fare nearly as well in many states of the Northeast, Midwest or far West.
Scalise has won most of his elections easily, and there’s no evidence that at the Best Western in 2002 he was courting the Duke vote, which at least one analysis has said he did not need. But given the results of the voting in 1989, 1990 and 1991, no savvy white Republican politician in Louisiana in 2002 would wish to alienate the Duke constituency.
Since then, the Republican Party has, if anything, become even more closely identified with white voters, especially in Louisiana and the rest of the South. In the 2014 U.S. Senate race in Louisiana, incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu drew just 18 percent of the white vote in the Nov. 4 primary and ultimately lost to Republican Bill Cassidy in the Dec. 6 runoff.
It’s unlikely Scalise will be damaged in his congressional district by EUROgate. But as majority whip, he is playing now on a national stage, and the audience is far different.
That’s a lesson learned by Trent Lott, the former Republican U.S. senator from Mississippi, who, also in 2002, spoke in praise of arch-segregationist U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina. Lott said Mississippians were proud Thurmond carried their state as a third-party “Dixiecrat” candidate in the 1948 presidential election, adding, “If the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.”
At the time, Lott was poised to become Senate majority leader in 2003. His Thurmond remarks didn’t hurt him in Mississippi — he later easily won re-election — but they led to his resignation as his party’s leader in the Senate.
Scalise, so far, has kept his leadership position.
Follow Gregory Roberts, of The Advocate Washington bureau, on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC.