House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, said of his address at a white supremacist conference in 2002, "I didn't know who all of these groups were and I detest any kind of hate group. For anyone to suggest that I was involved with a group like that is insulting and ludicrous." Scalise spoke with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune Monday.
He delivered the speech at issue to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), which was founded by white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Blogger Lamar White Jr., who writes about Louisiana state politics, was the first to report the speech. The EURO confererence, held at a Best Western hotel in Metairie, Louisiana, was benignly described in promotional material unearthed by White as an "all-day training workshop designed to teach the most effective and up-to-date methods of civil rights and heritage related activism."
Scalise told NOLA.com that at the time, he was making speeches to groups all over Southern Louisiana about his opposition to a state tax plan. "I spoke to the League of Women Voters, a pretty liberal group. ... I still went and spoke to them," he said. But, he said, "David Duke was never at any group I spoke to." Technically, this is true. Duke was not scheduled to be physically present in Metairie, but he would certainly be heard there. The EURO conference promotions said Duke would be attending a EURO event in Europe at the same time as the Metairie conference, and he would address both at the same time by teleconference.
Scalise also seemed to deny that David Duke was affiliated with EURO at all, saying to NOLA.com, "I would not go to any group he was a part of." But BloombergPolitics' Mike Bender talked with Duke, who thought Scalise knew about his connection to EURO. He said Scalise had been invited to speak to EURO by Duke's former campaign manager, Kenny Knight, and "he [Scalise] knew Kenny. I mean, he knew me. But I can't swear to it. When you're running around different places and talking to events you're invited and you just see a name and you've got three or four others to do and you don't have anyone to vet them, that's possible."
Now, Scalise says he "would not go to speak to" an organization like EURO. And now, he has a bigger staff that is able to vet his speech invitations--"[w]e turn down requests from organizations we don't approve of."
The story comes just days before a new Congress convenes, with Scalise poised to shape House Republicans' agenda in his first full term as whip.
At the same time, American voters have been showing increased racial polarization in their political preferences, with white majorities siding overwhelmingly with Republicans in the 2014 midterms and racial minorities continuing their strong support for Democrats. Many strategists say both parties must figure out how to reach beyond their respective bases.
Scalise, 49, ascended to his leadership post in June in the chain of events that followed then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor's surprise defeat in a Republican primary.
Scalise won the whip race with the solid backing of House conservatives, particularly Southerners who wanted a greater leadership voice, given the region's role in giving Republicans their largest House majority since the start of the Great Depression.
He won his seat in a 2008 special election after helping build a more cohesive Republican caucus in a Louisiana statehouse that historically had not operated along party lines. His district includes majority white portions of New Orleans and surrounding suburbs, reaching to coastal and bayou communities anchored by the energy and fishing industries.