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Opinion | If the speakership is his future, Steve Scalise first needs to tell the truth about his past

The House Majority Whip’s remarkable recovery after an assassination attempt compelled and inspired Americans. If he runs to replace Paul Ryan, he’ll need to do something else courageous: Confront the scandal that nearly toppled his political career.

More than three years ago, I published a report on my long-running personal blog, CenLamar, that, within only a day, would somehow find its way to the front pages of almost every major American newspaper and would become the subject of endless hours of conversation on every cable news channel in the country for nearly a week.

Although I knew the report would generate interest in Louisiana, I never anticipated it would spark a national controversy and would permanently link my name with its subject, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Republican congressman from suburban New Orleans.

Earlier this week, in the aftermath of Speaker Paul Ryan’s announcement that he would not seek another term in office, The Advocate‘s editorial board published a strong endorsement of electing Scalise to be the next Speaker of the House, asserting that it would be “invaluable to Louisiana” and “good for the country at large.” The next day, columnist Stephanie Grace argued that “it would be foolish to bet against Scalise rising all the way to the top of this party’s hierarchy;” Scalise, she said, has proven himself to be a “survivor” in more ways than one.

The congressman’s remarkable recovery from an assassination attempt last year inspired the entire country, much in the same way Gabby Giffords had seven years ago. Scalise’s colleagues on both sides of the aisle praised him as one of the kindest and most decent men on Capitol Hill, and when he returned to the chamber for the first time, they greeted him with a rousing and sustained standing ovation. That morning, Speaker Ryan walked into Scalise’s office to welcome him back, interrupting an interview Scalise was conducting with CBS. With the cameras rolling, Paul Ryan, upon seeing his friend in his office again, began weeping. There was nothing staged about it; Ryan was overcome with joy and, perhaps more than anything else, relief.

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If it were not for one of the most stunning defeats in American history, Steve Scalise’s rapid ascent to the top of congressional leadership would have never been possible.

In June 2014, a little-known economics professor named Dave Brat defeated Eric Cantor, the second-most powerful member of the House, in a Republican primary, an election that Cantor had assumed he’d win easily. Kevin McCarthy would be promoted to Cantor’s old job; the contest was over who would replace McCarthy as House Majority Whip.

Although Scalise was, at the time, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, he wasn’t the most likely candidate for the job. For one, he was far more conservative than most of his Republican colleagues, and typically, the House Majority Whip has been more of a pragmatist than an ideologue.

But Scalise had two important things in his favor: The ascendancy of the TEA Party, which saw Scalise as one of their own, and the lack of Southern representation at the top.

He won on the first ballot, besting Marlin Stutzman of Indiana and Peter Roskam of Illinois.

“Scalise attributed his first ballot victory, against two opponents with sizeable GOP support, to having a ‘great team’ of fellow Republicans behind him. Scalise even brought back former Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, a Tea Party favorite, to promote him with the GOP conference’s most conservative members,” The Times-Picayune reported at the time.

Steve Scalise, by most accounts, is a genuinely nice man and a loyal friend, but he’s also a far-right ideologue whose political ascendance was built on a version of the “Southern Strategy.”

The story I first reported, more than three years ago, was that Scalise, when he was serving as a state representative in 2002, had spoken at a national convention of a white supremacist organization, a known hate group.

It’s also a story that demands revisiting in any discussion over whether Scalise is the appropriate person to become second in the presidential line of succession, particularly because the details of that story have largely been either obscured or forgotten and because, today, our country’s political system has been poisoned by the ascendence of those who traffic in racial resentment.

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Acting off a tip provided by his former Democratic opponent, Gilda Reed, and her son, Robert Reed, both of whom claimed they had repeatedly been told of the existence of a photograph of Steve Scalise standing alongside the most well-known racist in the world, David Duke, I spent months researching and attempting to track down the alleged photograph or anyone who had ever seen it. It was a dead-end. The photograph, I concluded, didn’t actually exist, and the story about it was nothing more than a rumor.

But then, late one December night in 2014, I began combing through the archives of the online hate group StormFront, searching for Scalise’s name. Almost immediately, I found the following comment from 2002, written under the pseudonym Alsace Hebert (bold mine):

EURO’s recent national convention held in the greater New Orleans area was a convergence of ideas represented by Americans from diverse geographical regions like California, Texas, New Jersey and the Carolina’s. This indicates that concerns held are pervasive in every sovereign state and Republic alike, within an increasingly diminishing view of where America stands on individual liberty for whites.

In addition to plans to implement tactical strategies that were discussed, the meeting was productive locally as State Representative, Steve Scalise, discussed ways to oversee gross mismanagement of tax revenue or “slush funds” that have little or no accountability.

Representative Scalise brought into sharp focus the dire circumstances pervasive in many important, under-funded needs of the community at the expense of graft within the Housing and Urban Development Fund, an apparent give-away to a selective group based on race.

EURO or the European-American Unity Rights Organization was the latest iteration of David Duke’s former group, the National Association for the Advancement of White People. Scalise may have not gotten a photograph with Duke (who participated via video-link from Russia), but it appeared fairly obvious that he had shown up and spoken at Duke’s conference.

Others had chimed in to Hebert’s thread, verifying his account.

But I understood I needed more material and a better grasp of the context before I could report anything written by someone on a hate group’s online bulletin board.

I asked a friend of mine, a skilled researcher and internet sleuth, to help. He attempted, repeatedly, to contact Hebert but never heard back. However, within only a day, he uncovered a second comment from Hebert, written two years later (we later confirmed Hebert’s real name and learned that he had recently passed away) (bold mine):

It was just announced that Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson will enter the race in the 1st Congressional District. Those that attended the EURO conference in New Orleans will recall that Scalise was a speaker, offering his support for issues that are of concern to us. I suppose if Duke does not make the election for whatever reason, this gentleman would be a good alternative.

I interviewed a woman from the Southern Poverty Law Center who had gone undercover at the conference; it unmistakably was about promoting white supremacy, she said. They were selling racist merchandise and t-shirts behind booths that lined the back perimeter of the conference room.

I discovered that a minor league affiliate of the Chicago Cubs had actually canceled their hotel reservations after learning the conference would be hosted there, a fact that had first been reported by, of all people, a man who would later emerge as one of Scalise’s staunchest defenders.

And then I asked a few people who had worked in state government leadership at the time whether they knew what Scalise meant when he allegedly referred to eliminating “slush funds.” They knew exactly what he was talking about: A proposal to defund community programs, primarily in minority neighborhoods and paid for through a portion of the hotel tax, in order to free up enough cash to lure the Charlotte Hornets basketball team to New Orleans. It was a familiar talking point, and, in 2002, it was the subject of intense public debate.

The reference to a “slush fund,” his former colleagues were certain, was not the same thing as the so-called “Housing and Urban Development Fund;” that was likely a reference to a local, ongoing controversy involving the Jefferson Parish Housing Authority.

I was satisfied that I’d collected more than enough evidence, but I understood I was taking a calculated risk. I didn’t wait for a comment by Scalise. I knew enough about him to know he would simply issue a denial.

I decided to hit publish on the very first story shortly before midnight on December 28th, 2014.

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The next day, as I’d anticipated, Scalise issued a denial in an interview with The Times-Picayune, telling reporter Julia O’Donoghue, “For anyone to suggest that I was involved with a group like that is insulting and ludicrous.”

O’Donoghue and others continued to pursue stories attempting to debunk my report about Scalise’s appearance at the EURO conference, relying on, of all people, the treasurer of the organization and a well-known aide to David Duke named Kenny Knight. Knight claimed, ludicrously, that Scalise had actually been at a completely different event at the same hotel, a neighborhood association meeting for a neighborhood located more than five miles away and an association that never actually existed. He told reporters that he personally left with then-state Rep. Scalise before the EURO conference began and that he was not associated with the organization, despite the fact that a picture of Knight at the conference features prominently in the organization’s newsletter and that Knight is listed as a registered agent of the organization in its filings with the Louisiana Secretary of State.

Kenny Knight (center) in 2002. (Photo credit: Louisiana Voice)

But only 24 hours after telling O’Donoghue that it was “insulting and ludicrous” for anyone to claim he had attended the conference, Steve Scalise changed his story completely.

“One of the many groups that I spoke to regarding this critical legislation was a group whose views I wholeheartedly condemn,” Scalise told Jonathan Martin and Jackie Calmes for a front-page story in The New York Times. “It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold.”

National Republicans were despondent and seriously concerned that the revelation one of their leaders had spoken at a hate group’s annual conference could inflict lasting damage on their efforts to win the White House in 2016, a worry that now seems well-intentioned but completely misplaced considering the campaign run by the man currently occupying the Oval Office.

In Louisiana, some Republican pundits simply pretended as if Scalise had never actually admitted the story was accurate. Conservative blogger Scott McKay, publisher of The Hayride, hoped to make the story about me. The state’s legacy media, for the most part, gave the congressman the benefit of the doubt and a sympathetic ear. There wasn’t a single elected official in Louisiana who publicly called for Scalise’s resignation.

With one notable exception, no one questioned how Scalise, a Republican politician from Jefferson Parish, could have possibly been unaware that Kenny Knight, one of Jefferson Parish’s most notorious political operatives and David Duke’s most well-known associate, was a virulent racist, and with one notable exception, no one criticized the gullibility of anyone who would believe Scalise’s excuse that he couldn’t have known EURO was a hate group because he was “without the advantages of a tool like Google.” (Scalise has a degree in computer science and worked as a software programmer. The event was held in 2002. Google debuted in 1998; by the year 2000, it was ubiquitous. Before Google, though, there was WebCrawler, Lycos, AltaVista, Excite, Magellan, Infoseek, and, of course, Yahoo. Search engines have been a fixture of the internet since 1994).

Jarvis DeBerry

The one exception was Jarvis DeBerry, who also happens to be the only African-American opinion columnist employed by a major Louisiana newspaper (a fact that speaks volumes about the overall failure of the state’s press to adequately represent or appreciate the perspectives of nearly a third of its populace).

“Scalise isn’t accused of fattening Duke’s pockets in any way,” DeBerry wrote. “But the question remains: Why did Scalise feel the need to go talk to a group whose very name should have clued him in on its racist ideologies? You ought to be able to guess the awfulness of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization without a computer. Maybe the answer is right there in front of our faces: In Louisiana, cozying up to such groups can be a way to win.”

To be sure, Stephanie Grace, who revealed that Scalise had once described himself to her as “David Duke without the baggage,” also found Scalise’s feigned ignorance to be problematic, but she was far more sympathetic; Scalise, she seemed to argue, was a victim of his own “relationship-building talents.”

It’s a thesis that she echoed in her most recent column about why it’s unwise to bet against his chances at the speakership.

Grace argued Scalise had survived both an assassination attempt and a political scandal. That’s only half true. He didn’t survive a political scandal. He was rescued from a political scandal by one of his closest friends, Rep. Cedric Richmond, an African-American Democrat and current chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

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If it were not for partisan gerrymandering and the cynical way lawmakers in Louisiana carved out a majority-minority district in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act while also guaranteeing Republican control everywhere else, Richmond and Scalise would have likely competed for the same seat. Richmond represents most of New Orleans, but his district stretches all the way up to a majority African-American section of Baton Rouge, more than seventy miles away. Scalise represents the white flight areas located in between.

More than anyone else, it was Cedric Richmond who ensured that Steve Scalise would keep his position in leadership. Scalise, he assured critics, did not “have a racist bone in his body.” It was an extraordinary gesture, and, no doubt, it was also Richmond’s honest opinion of a man with whom he had forged a friendship.

Steve Scalise guards second base against his friend Cedric Richmond during a previous year’s Congressional baseball game.Both men share a love and talent for baseball. (Credit: Washington Post).

It was not, however, proof of Scalise’s ability to forge bipartisan consensus or reach across the aisle, as The Advocate has repeatedly argued.

More importantly, it’s a sad indictment of how divided our country is that we continue to perpetuate the notion there’s anything remarkable about a white conservative and a black liberal actually becoming friends with one another. It’s also a convenient excuse for us, especially in the South, to avoid confronting the most difficult questions about what animates our politics.

When he was a member of the Louisiana legislature, Steve Scalise opposed recognizing Martin Luther King Day as a state holiday. It was already a federal holiday, but his argument, at the time, was that it would have been one too many holidays for the state.

He championed and authored a constitutional amendment that banned marriage equality.

And when he addressed that conference of white supremacists, his speech was about the allegations of corruption in public housing and the importance of eliminating funding for social service and community programs in majority African-American neighborhoods in order to entice George Shinn, the disgraced owner of the Charlotte Hornets, to move his basketball team to New Orleans.

Scalise would tell the media that his speech was a part of his tour to drum up opposition to the Stelly Plan, a proposal to replace sales taxes on utilities and household consumptions, which disproportionately affected the poor and lower middle class, with modest increases in income taxes.

There’s only one problem with Scalise’s explanation: At the time of his speech, the Stelly Plan wasn’t yet on anyone’s radar; the bill hadn’t even been debated in the legislature. It hadn’t even been discussed yet in a committee hearing. It’s true that Scalise did go on a tour against the Stelly Plan, along with former State Sen. James David Cain, but that tour kicked off months later.

According to those who worked on the issue, it’s “absolutely inconceivable” that Scalise was talking about Stelly; no one was.

It’s also telling that his opposition to the Stelly Plan wasn’t what inspired praise from a white supremacist on a hate group’s online bulletin board; it was, instead, his alleged opposition to government spending on programs for a “selective group based on race” and his “support for issues that are of concern to us.” The speech had left such a strong impression on the man calling himself Alsace Hebert that, two years afterward, he mentioned it again as a reason for other white supremacists to support Scalise’s potential run for Congress.

He didn’t just hear dog whistles; he heard a man he believed to be preaching to his choir.

When the news first broke that Scalise had survived an assassination attempt, Jim Engster, one of the state’s sharpest political minds and long-time fixture of talk radio, recognized the political ramifications back home. It may sound cynical, but it’s also undeniably true: Scalise, already the dean of the Louisiana’s congressional delegation, would never have to worry about a well-financed opponent or losing his overwhelmingly conservative district to a fellow Republican like Eric Cantor had.

He had nearly lost his life because of his decision to serve the people of Louisiana in Congress, a fact that certainly will never be forgotten or unappreciated by his constituents and one that makes it difficult for his political opponents or the state media to criticize his record without coming across as dishonorable or disrespectful.

I don’t know Steve Scalise, but since I published the story about his speech, I have interacted a few times with his office. They have consistently treated me fairly and much more professionally than almost any other office currently occupied by a Republican from Louisiana.

I trust those who have vouched for his personal decency and kindness, and I admire the example he set and the resolve he demonstrated to the entire country during his recovery.

I also readily admit: I can’t be entirely objective about any of this. After I published that first story more than three years ago, I received hate mail and threats from complete strangers; I was the subject of mockery and ridicule by well-known Louisiana conservative pundits; I was warned repeatedly about the dangers of exposing the underworld of hate groups; at some point, a stranger broke into my backyard and severed my cable and internet connection with a power tool.

After the congressman was shot, a handful of people sent me e-mails or comments on Facebook blaming me for inspiring a clearly deranged man to plan and carry out an assassination attempt. “The blood is on your hands,” a mathematics professor from Ohio told me. Even though I understood that it requires a special type of hatred and delusion to accuse me of having anything at all to do with an act of violence, his words still affected me: This, I thought, is a symptom of a country now led by a man who calls the press “the enemy of the American people.”

But this is personal to me for another reason: Steve Scalise is clearly a talented and charismatic politician, and years ago, if he had just told the truth about his past associations and cynical alliances with the most toxic elements of Louisiana’s political establishment, he could have humiliated and exposed the realities of racism and the lingering influence of David Duke’s movement. He had a perfect opportunity, and instead, he lied with a straight face and the knowledge that the majority of voters of his district wouldn’t care.

But if the chance presents itself and he does ultimately decide to run for Speaker of the House (he claims that he would never challenge Kevin McCarthy, who has already received Paul Ryan’s endorsement, but in politics, the easiest thing to change is someone’s “intention”), his voting record, his beliefs, and his past associations all demand scrutiny from the entire country and his honest self-reflection.

“If you’re having a debate over whether a guy’s a racist, chances are that guy’s a racist,” the comedian Dave Letterman recently joked.

We’re already having that debate about the President of the United States. We can’t afford to also have it about the Speaker of the House.

Clarification and update: Jarvis DeBerry of The Times-Picayune is the only full-time African-American opinion columnist at a major Louisiana newspaper. Ed Pratt, a retired journalist and public relations professional, writes a weekly column for The AdvocateThis article has also been updated to clarify that Scalise, contrary to his claim, was not on a speaking tour in opposition of the Stelly Plan when he spoke at the EURO conference. That tour did not begin until several months later, and at the time of the conference, the Stelly Plan hadn’t yet been heard in read in a single committee hearing.

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