U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise cultivates relationships.
That’s not news to people here in Louisiana, who’ve watched the gregarious former state representative rise to one of Congress’ top posts in remarkably short order, although the rest of the country seems to be just figuring it out. It’s an instinct that’s helped him become such a successful politician.
It’s also an instinct that’s landed Scalise in the middle of a national scandal of epic proportions — and that may, in the end, help him survive it.
That Scalise finds himself under fire from both the left and right for his 2002 speech to a white nationalist group founded by notorious former Klan leader and perennial political candidate David Duke — or perhaps to a civic association headed by a leader of said group, depending on whose spotty memory you trust — is a function not just of Louisiana’s dicey racial politics but also of Scalise’s own tendency to engage.
After blogger Lamar White Jr. reported that Scalise, then a state representative, spoke about tax policy to a gathering hosted by the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO — which Scalise says he does not remember — he disavowed the group’s philosophy, called the appearance a mistake he regrets and chalked it up to his own disorganization and a limited staff.
Conference organizer Kenny Knight later said Scalise actually had spoken to a neighborhood group that met before the EURO gathering in the same room, also at his request.
I’m not sure whether we’ll ever know which version is true, given the lack of records and conflicting accounts.
But I’d argue that it doesn’t much matter. Under either scenario, it’s clear that Scalise had some sort of working relationship with Knight, who was both his neighbor and a well-known close associate of Duke, one that led him to accept the invitation, talk about areas of agreement and ignore the rest.
No matter how you slice it — and no matter how he rationalized it — that doesn’t reflect well on Scalise.
What does is another relationship that’s getting a lot of attention these days, with fellow Congressman Cedric Richmond.
Scalise and Richmond, the only remaining Democrat in Louisiana’s delegation and both the state’s top-ranking Democrat and African-American politician, served together in the significantly less partisan Louisiana Legislature and built a friendship at work and on the basketball court.
Despite often toxic party politics, the relationship has continued in Washington, where they have worked closely on flood insurance and other state-specific needs. They disagree on a lot of things, from gun control to safety net issues, but they focus on areas of agreement.
When Scalise was chosen as majority whip last year, Richmond was among those who celebrated the achievement. And when Scalise found himself under fire from all sides, including from the state Democratic Party, Richmond spoke out in Scalise’s defense, vouched for his character and declared that he didn’t have a racist bone in his body.
His comments later were echoed by several other African-American Louisiana lawmakers, such as state Sen. Ed Murray and former state Sen. Ann Duplessis, but it was Richmond’s early and emphatic endorsement that helped set the tone of coverage. It’s been bad, but without Richmond, it would have been a lot worse.
Scalise’s rapid rise through the leadership is a product of his ability to build relationships, too. As whip, his role is not just to count votes but to serve as a bridge between the leadership and the GOP’s more conservative, rebellious members.
In his first few tests, he’s managed to cobble together some uneasy alliances, even though he’s drawn some serious flak from the true believer wing of the party. In some ways, he’s doing what he’s always done.
Yet thanks to his newfound prominence, Scalise is now under a microscope, and the scandal will only enhance the scrutiny. He’s going to have to start choosing his friends — and his situational allies — a lot more carefully.