By Hastings Wyman –
When it comes to racism, Republicans, especially those from the South, must be, like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion. So when Assistant House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), who holds the third-highest post in the House GOP leadership, was revealed to have addressed a meeting of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), a group founded by former KKK leader David Duke, it cast a cloud over the GOP’s triumphant return this week as the party in control of Congress.
Duke was not at the 2002 meeting and Scalise has said he did not know the nature of the group. His remarks focused on state tax policy, a major concern of Scalise at the time. But Duke told the Washington Post that Scalise “recognized how popular I was in his own district.” Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that in 2004, two years after his EURO speech, then-state Rep. Scalise called Duke “an embarrassment to our district and his message of hate only serves to divide us.”
The best evidence is that Scalise (R-LA) is an affable man of character who, as African-American US Rep. Cecil Richmond (D-LA) put it, doesn’t have “a racist bone in his body.” Scalise “is a wonderful, very amiable guy,” says a Washington insider with Louisiana connections. “If he were more disliked, it might hurt him. He’s always worked with blacks … and with other folks he disagrees with.” Bernie Pinsonat, a Baton Rouge pollster who has worked with both parties, says, “It might not have been the smartest thing he ever did,” but he adds that while Scalise is very conservative, he has “never showed racial divisiveness as part of his personality.”
Indeed, Boehner quickly came to Scalise’s defense, showing both his confidence in Scalise and his belief that the GOP can avoid a major brouhaha over what Scalise himself has called a mistake.
But that’s far from certain.
While Democrats so far have not piled on Scalise, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, away from Washington for the recess, return this week as the 114th Congress convenes, and may demand Scalise’s resignation from his leadership post. If they do, neither the media nor other Democrats can ignore them. Other African-Americans have not been as quick as Richmond to give Scalise a pass. “It’s still unfolding … Is there more to come out?” asks Dr. Silas Lee, a New Orleans pollster and sociologist, who adds that the Democratic National Committee is looking into the matter. And Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson noted that the GOP had done well electing racial minorities to major office, citing Indian-American Govs. Bobby Jindal (LA) and Nikki Haley (SC) – he might have added US Sens. Tim Scott (SC), who is black, and Marco Rubio (FL), a Latino – but has not done well with minority voters. Democrats generally receive some 90% of the black vote and two-thirds or more of Hispanics, though the GOP’s share of Latinos fluctuates. “[O]ne way to drive [African American and Latino voters] away, along with the votes of some whites as well,” wrote Robinson, “is to show that the party is still happy to welcome the support of unrepentant racists and anti-Semites.” And a spokesman for Louisiana’s Democratic Party, now largely supported by black voters, called this “a serious stain on Scalise’s record” and accused the congressman’s allies of “of trying to sweep this incident under the rug.”
Whatever happens in Washington, this has not created political difficulties for the GOP in Louisiana. The incident “will have no impact in Louisiana,” says Pinsonat. “It’s not that [voters] like Duke, it’s just that they don’t like using him to attack somebody else.” And he asserts that “attacking a Republican from the national level means absolutely nothing in Louisiana.” More cautiously, African-American Lee comments, “Some of his constituents will say it’s not going to affect them and others will hold it against him.”
One reason for the lack of a strong reaction so far against Scalise may be that the sometimes-violent demonstrations protesting the lack of indictments in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths, followed by the murder of two police officers in New York City, may have created a near-silent, but still salient, white backlash across the nation. One poll found that 58% of whites (70% of white Southerners) agreed with the decision of the grand jury not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for Brown’s death (85% of African Americans disagreed with the decision). Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani probably spoke for many whites when he derided the demonstrators and current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and spoke of the high crime rates among young black males.
On the other hand, if the GOP ever hopes to escape its rap as the party for whites, it’s going to take more than character references for those whose actions suggest either negligent naïveté or a willingness to tolerate the intolerant. Stay tuned.