The story has all the traits of a career-ending political scandal: A congressman who recently snagged a top position in party leadership faces accusations that he addressed a hate group run by a notorious white supremacist. And all of that, just a week before his party is set to take the reigns of power in Congress.
But the fast rising career of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise, who was tapped as House Majority Whip this summer, may not be in the ditches just yet. There’s a lot to keep track of. Here’s what you need to know:
So what happened?
It turns out Scalise addressed an anti-Semitic, white supremacist group back in 2002 run by none other than David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan who is well-known in Scalise’s home state of Louisiana because of several statewide campaigns for governor and senator.
A liberal Louisiana politics blogger revealed the encounter with the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) after finding an account of Scalise’s speech to the group on a white supremacist forum.
The group is bad news for Scalise: it’s been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which details the group’s anti-semitic, racist views.
The next day, reporters in D.C. were asking Scalise’s office about the meeting and after aides first said it was “probable” and then “likely” the congressman spoke to the group, Scalise broke his silence in an interview with his local paper, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.
He said he didn’t remember specifically addressing EURO, but said that at the time he “went and spoke to any group that called” in 2002 when he was trying to drum up support in opposing a state tax plan.
And then Scalise released the ultimate mea culpa statement Tuesday afternoon, calling his appearance at the event “a mistake I regret.”
“One of the many groups that I spoke to regarding this critical legislation was a group whose views I wholeheartedly condemn. It was a mistake I regret,” Scalise said.
Democrats must be eager to disrupt the Republican leadership. So given his admission, why isn’t he at greater risk of losing his leadership position?
Republicans have a lot at stake here and just months after solidifying a new leadership and days before taking on new-found power in Washington, keeping Scalise in the ranks as whip is the ideal for GOP leaders.
And details of Scalise’s appearance at the hate group’s forum aren’t giving too much credence to the theory that Scalise is a closeted bigot. And Scalise is touting his Catholic faith as a reason he wouldn’t associate with white supremacists. They don’t usually like Catholics either.
With only one aide on his staff, Scalise conceded the regular vetting process fell through. And Kenny Knight, a longtime advisor to Duke, said he invited Scalise (who was his neighbor at the time) personally and insisted in an interview with the Washington Post that “I don’t think Scalise knew anything about EURO.”
Knight said he and Scalise were friendly and Scalise knew him as the head of “our civic association,” but that they “wouldn’t talk about race or the Jewish question.”
Sounds like the dots wouldn’t have been too hard for Scalise to connect given Duke’s notoriety. How could Scalise survive this scandal?
While national Democrats have their targets set on Scalise — including one statement from House Democrats’ campaign arm that “Scalise chose to cheerlead for a group of KKK members and neo-Nazis” — Scalise is getting some much-needed relief from a diverse group of fellow Louisiana politicos.
The state’s Indian American Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal was quick to fire off a statement calling Scalise “a good man” and expressing his confidence that Scalise “absolutely rejects racism in all its forms.”
And Democrats from the bayou state also rose to Scalise’s defense.
African-American Rep. Cedric Richmond, who will be the only Democrat from the state serving in Congress starting next week, jumped to Scalise’s defense and said he would not “let them use Steve as a scapegoat to score political points.”
Former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards told the New York Times “sometimes you end up in front of these groups through no fault of your own” and the state’s former Sen. Bennett Johnston said he knows Scalise didn’t mean to address the white supremacist group.
“While it is sometimes fun to see Republicans in trouble, you’d be wrong to blame Representative Steve Scalise for being racist on account of addressing a meeting of European-American Unity and Rights Organization ‘EURO’ in 2002,” Johnston, who is now a lobbyist in Washington, said in a statement. “I know a lot about David Duke, who ran against me for the Senate in 1990, but I never knew that the ‘EURO’ was a racist organization. I may disagree with Representative Scalise but a racist he is not. Nor would he have been stupid enough to knowingly address a racist group.”
What about Republican leadership? Are they putting a little skin in the game to save their pal?
It looks that way. After about a day and a half of scrutiny and speculation, Scalise’s superiors in the House Republican leadership showed their support for their now-embattled whip.
House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement Scalise has his “full confidence” as whip despite making “an error in judgment,” followed shortly by a similar statement by his No. 2, Rep. Kevin McCarthy.
But wait, aren’t there some questions about whether Scalise actually even attended the event, after all?
Remember Kenny Knight’s account to the Post about the event? Knight has since changed his story considerably in his latest interviews with several media outlets.
Knight told Slate that Scalise actually spoke to the local civic association in the same hotel space as the EURO meeting, before that meeting started.
And in subsequent interviews with other reporters, details in Knight’s recollection of the event 12 years ago have cropped up or changed.
Is there anything else we should know about Scalise’s past in regards to race relations?
Scalise voted twice against making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a state holiday in 1999 and 2004 as a state legislator. And in 1997 he voted against a bill prohibiting hate crimes based on race, class or sexual orientation, Politico reported.
Scalise is and has clearly been aware of David Duke’s white supremacist views, but that’s not what he pointed to as the “first and most important thing” in a 1999 interview with Roll Call about why Duke wouldn’t make a good congressional candidate.
“The novelty of David Duke has worn off,” Scalise. “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.”
And New Orleans Advocate politics blogger Stephanie Grace says that Scalise once told her he was like David Duke without the baggage.