As U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, takes fire for his appearance before a white nationalist gathering in Metairie in 2002, he becomes just the latest politician to find himself entangled with the pervasive and complicated legacy David Duke has left in Louisiana.
By the time of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization meeting, Duke already had passed the apex of his influence in Louisiana. But even though his star began to wane after his nationally covered 1991 gubernatorial runoff with Edwin Edwards, he was influential enough to coax Republican Mike Foster to pay $150,000 for a list of Duke supporters four years later, before Foster was elected governor.
Since then, Duke has continued to fade gradually from the political limelight in the state.
While it remains unclear whether Scalise knew whom he was addressing in 2002, by that point Duke’s peak already was years behind him. In part, that came as some of his core policy — rather than racial or religious — prescriptions were being co-opted by mainstream Republicans.
“I think that people are more sophisticated,” Roy Fletcher, an adviser to Foster, said Tuesday. “I think that people recognize that the bad parts of what he represented don’t need to be represented anymore, but some (of his) policies have been implemented, taken over and co-opted and there’s no need for a son-of-a-bitch like him.”
Perhaps the most widely publicized connection between the former Klansman and a major Louisiana politician was the revelation of Foster’s purchase of Duke’s list of supporters during the 1995 gubernatorial race.
That purchase, which prompted a grand jury probe, eventually resulted in an ethics fine for Foster, who had failed to report it on his campaign expenditures. Foster later said he never used the list he had purchased, though Duke endorsed his candidacy.
Fletcher said at the time, with the state’s economy on the rocks, Duke appealed to what he termed “RAW voters,” or Real Angry Whites. And while Fletcher disavowed the racist appeals Duke made — calling him crazy — he said tapping those voters and the anti-tax and anti-federal government sentiments that drew them to Duke was politically important.
“There are things people want, bigger things, that Duke tapped into, and what we have to do is find ways to articulate that in a common, sensible manner,” he said.
Scalise himself has made similar arguments.
“The novelty of David Duke has worn off,” Scalise told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call in 1999 as he discussed an upcoming special election to replace U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston. “The voters in this district are smart enough to realize that they need to get behind someone who not only believes in the issues they care about, but also can get elected. Duke has proven that he can’t get elected, and that’s the first and most important thing.”
Duke on Tuesday pointed to his own political success in Louisiana, noting that he got 60 percent of the vote in what is now Scalise’s district in his races for the U.S. Senate and for the governorship.
Duke said Scalise could not afford to turn his back on those voters.
“What is he supposed to do? No person has come out and said, ‘I hate David Duke and I don’t support his policies,’ ’’ Duke said.
Foster wasn’t the only one who considered the importance of Duke’s voters. The late Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat who also was flirting with a gubernatorial bid at the same time, spoke with Duke about buying the voter list, though he said later that he never meant to buy it.
The price tag would have been $250,000, according to reports at the time, a price that Lee said was too high without an endorsement by Duke.
In addition to a string of racially focused organizations of which EURO is only the latest incarnation, Duke has been a figure in the state’s electoral politics since the mid-1970s, starting with runs for state legislative seats in the Baton Rouge area. At the time, his connections to the Klan were already well known.
A near-perennial candidate who sought both state and federal offices, Duke racked up just a single victory. In 1989 he won a state House seat in Jefferson Parish, but he never became a major power broker in Baton Rouge.
Former state Sen. James David Cain, R-Dry Creek, said most politicians have close advisers and aides, people whom others in the political community could immediately identify as a close supporter. But Duke seemed to have none of those kinds of allies when he was in the Louisiana House.
“There was nobody around him,” Cain said.
At the same time, he wasn’t seen as a pariah.
“If he was sitting in the dining room (of the House cafeteria), you’d stop by and say hi, but he didn’t go to basketball games or do much of anything (socially) with us,” Cain said.
Duke’s electoral influence would peak soon afterward.
During his term in the House, he ran a surprisingly competitive race against then-U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston for Johnston’s seat. A year later, in 1991, he would make it to the gubernatorial runoff against Edwin Edwards, securing almost 39 percent of the vote in a race in which Edwards’ supporters coined the famous phrase: “Vote for the crook; it’s important.”
Soon, however, Duke’s electoral appeal started to wane. In the 1996 race to replace a retiring Johnston, Duke won only 11.5 percent of the vote, slightly more than a quarter of what he had won six years earlier, and finished a distant fourth in the primary.
That came with the “co-option” of Duke’s issues by the Republican Party, a practice that Fletcher described as a natural way for both parties to incorporate voters who prefer fringe candidates.
“The Foster campaign clearly took some of his message and used it, and other politicians did the same, and before long there was no need for him,” Fletcher said of Duke.
Months after Scalise’s appearance at the EURO conference, Duke would plead guilty to tax fraud and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. He largely faded from public view after that, until this week’s revelations.
Still, many of the constituents that Duke’s message resonated with remain.
Pollster Bernie Pinsonat, with Southern Media and Opinion Research Strategies, dismissed Duke as an oddity who, even without his views on race, was “not suited for elected office.”
But the anti-tax and anti-government views he espoused have since found new champions in the tea party. While acknowledging that some of that support may come from those who also subscribe to Duke’s views on race, Pinsonat said it’s largely a political message.
“I can’t sit here and say it doesn’t have anything to do with race, but it certainly has a lot to do with anti-Washington and anti-taxes,” Pinsonat said.
Staff writers Sara Pagones and Mark Ballard contributed to this report. Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.