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.

Does Scalise endorse the racist goals of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, a group so bigoted that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled it a hate group? I’ve never seen anything to suggest so, although there were times, like when he opposed establishing a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., when he certainly could have shown more cultural sensitivity. I’ve watched him work closely with his fellow state legislator and now congressional colleague Cedric Richmond, who has defended him, and have seen him at campaign events in support of Richmond and other African-American colleagues, party and ideological differences notwithstanding.

But I also get how the invitation wouldn’t have set off alarm bells, given that Scalise had long since made his awkward peace with the situation.

In fact, by 2002, Scalise may have been so used to the idea of dealing with Duke voters that he really considered EURO just another part of his constituency, even if it was a distasteful one. Maybe not so different in his mind from the League of Women Voters, which he cited in an interview with The Times-Picayune as another group he’d addressed despite the fact that they didn’t agree on everything — an insulting comparison that suggests he still doesn’t fully grasp how bad this all looks from the outside.

Scalise claims he didn’t know the group’s origins, which is pretty implausible given how prominent Duke and his associates were in Jefferson political circles.

Instead, the most charitable explanation is that he chose not to think about it, that he opted instead to focus on areas of agreement. Indeed, sketchy reports of his speech suggest he talked not about race or religion but the legislative slush funds then allotted to urban lawmakers, which were indeed often abused, but which also would have validated stereotypes held by this particular group.

He’d hardly be the only politician to make such a deal with himself. In 1996, commentator and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan disavowed an endorsement from Duke, even as he fielded a Louisiana delegate slate with at least one former Duke campaign official. Former Gov. Mike Foster paid Duke for a valuable voter contact list, then failed to disclose it, explaining once word got out that it wasn’t “cool” to be associated with him.

No, it’s not. But like robbers drawn to banks because that’s where the money is, politicians go where the voters are. And they, I guess, tell themselves what they need to hear in order to sleep at night.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.