Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House majority whip, acknowledged Monday that he spoke at a gathering hosted by white-supremacist leaders while serving as a state representative in 2002, thrusting a racial controversy into House Republican ranks days before the party assumes control of both congressional chambers.Scalise, 49, who ascended to the House GOP’s third-ranking post this year, confirmed through an adviser that he once appeared at a convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO. But the adviser said the congressman didn’t know at the time about the group’s affiliation with racists and neo-Nazi activists.“For anyone to suggest that I was involved with a group like that is insulting and ludicrous,” Scalise told the Times-Picayune on Monday night. The organization, founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, has been called a hate group by several civil rights organizations.The news could complicate Republican efforts to project the sense of a fresh start for a resurgent, diversifying party as the new session of Congress opens next week. In the time since voters handed control of Congress to Republicans, top GOP leaders have been eagerly trumpeting their revamped image and management team on Capitol Hill.Monday night, some Democrats were already raising questions about whether Scalise should remain in a leadership post.“It’s hard to believe, given David Duke’s reputation in Louisiana, that somebody in politics in Louisiana wasn’t aware of Duke’s associations with the group and what they stand for,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (Tex.), a rising star in the Democratic Party who is considered among the most prominent Hispanics in Congress. “If that’s the case and he agreed to join them for their event, then I think it’s a real test for Speaker Boehner as to whether congressman Scalise should remain in Republican leadership,” Castro said in a phone interview.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) called the news “a big deal.” “Race still is, sadly, an ugly aspect of our politics,” he said by e-mail. “No politician should ever find himself/herself addressing a white supremacist organization except to tell them to go to hell.” Associates of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) are monitoring the situation, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s staff had no comment.Scalise’s political circle worked furiously late Monday to quell the storm, with his confidants e-mailing reporters and House members, assuring them that Scalise did not know the implications of his actions in 2002 and describing him as a disorganized and ill-prepared young politician who didn’t pay close attention to invitations.
When Scalise was asked by the Times-Picayune how he came to appear at the conference, he cited his staff, saying he had only one person working for him at the time. “When someone called and asked me to speak, I would go,” he said. “If I knew today what they were about, I wouldn’t go.”In a phone interview late Monday from his home in Mandeville, La., Duke recalled Scalise as a “nice guy” and said he was invited to the conference by two of Duke’s longtime associates: Howie Farrell, who had worked on Duke’s gubernatorial campaign, and Kenny Knight.Scalise “says he didn’t realize what the conference was. I don’t know if he did or did not,” Duke said. He also said Scalise should not be forced to resign, saying Scalise was merely taking an opportunity to meet with “constituents.”
“What politician would ever pass up an opportunity to talk to his constituents?” Duke said. “It sounds like they are just playing politics.”Duke said he spoke to the conference twice, once by phone and later by video hookup. But he did not hear Scalise speak, he said, and does not know whether Scalise heard him speak.In a statement, Scalise’s spokeswoman, Moira Bagley Smith, emphasized that the then-state lawmaker was unaware at the time of the group’s ideology and mission. “He has never been affiliated with the abhorrent group in question,” Smith said. “The hate-fueled ignorance and intolerance that group projects is in stark contradiction to what Mr. Scalise believes and practices as a father, a husband, and a devoted Catholic.”Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a leading conservative in the House, said in an interview Monday that he stood by Scalise and believed that many conservatives in the House’s hard-right bloc would do the same.“Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners,” King said. “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, it’s the sick. Given that piece of Scripture, and understanding that Scalise probably wasn’t staffed thoroughly, I could understand how something like this happened. But I know his heart, I’ve painted houses with him post-Katrina, and I know he is a good man.” …Ronald Doggett, the head of the Virginia chapter of EURO, said Duke participated in the conference via phone from Russia.Doggett, who attended the conference, said he did not remember hearing Scalise speak but said it would not be unusual for EURO to have contact with local officials.“If that happened, so what?” Doggett said in a phone interview Monday. “What is the big deal? There’s a different standard for whites than there are for other groups. How is this really news?” …Scalise’s defense — that he and his staff were not fully cognizant of the group’s leanings and the nature of the meeting — contrasts with the local news media coverage generated by the Duke-coordinated conclave that spring. (“House Majority Whip Scalise confirms he spoke to white supremacists in 2002“; my emphasis)