Echoes of ’91: A Campaign Season Littered With David Duke’s Baggage

In 1991, David Duke lost in a landslide against Edwin Edwards in Louisiana's most consequential gubernatorial election in a century. Back then, Duke publicly presented himself as a moderate conservative in an attempt to distance himself from his toxic, racist past. Today, two GOP candidates seem to be rummaging through Duke's baggage to see what fits.

David Duke on Nov. 17, 1991. Credit: Times-Picayune

Originally published in the Bayou Brief’s newsletter:

Last week, at Love Field in Dallas, fifteen minutes before the arrival of Flight 1220 from Oakland, a gate agent for Southwest Airlines began handing out American flags. The local news had already shown up with their cameras, but the hundreds of travelers awaiting their flights had no idea what they were about to witness.

In 1967, five-year-old Bryan Knight’s father Roy left to fight a war in Vietnam. Roy’s family gathered at Love Field to say their goodbyes and watch as his plane sped into the sky and he began his voyage to an unimaginably distant land. Bryan never saw his father again.

“Col. Knight ejected from his aircraft, but no parachute was seen deploying,” the gate agent explained over the PA yesterday after handing out all of the flags. “A search was undertaken but could not find him.”

In June, 52 years after he left, Roy’s remains were finally identified in Vietnam. “Today,” the agent said, “Col. Knight is coming home to Dallas.” The entire terminal had now gathered in silent respect to watch as Col. Roy Knight, Jr.’s coffin, draped in an American flag, was unloaded by a military detail. 

His son Bryan is now a pilot for Southwest Airlines, and last week, he flew his father’s remains back to Love Field.

I shared this story, which was first reported by Jackson Proskow on Twitter, with my family. My mother wrote back. “The empathy of the human spirit is alive,” she said. It was an affirmation that what seems to be missing too often in our nation still endures, and it was an extraordinary moment that many characterized as poignant, unifying, and distinctly American.

Credit: Jackson Proskow

A few hours later in Mississippi, agents at Immigration and Customs Enforcement released 270 people of the 600 they had rounded up and detained for being in the United States without the proper authorization. ICE had taken away the parents of hundreds of children. For a short time, it appeared as if the Deep South was on the brink of the worst humanitarian crisis since Hurricane Katrina.

Today, in America, dozens of children are being detained in cramped quarters, after the government forcibly removed them from their parents.

Two weeks ago, a man from the Dallas area drove 600 miles to El Paso and massacred 22 human beings, injuring 26 others. His online rants revealed he was animated by the hate-fueled rhetoric of a man with a long-established record of advancing white supremacy as a political agenda, the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump. For millions of decent Americans of principle, Trump’s hate-fueled, nakedly racist, self-aggrandizing and fact-free triumphalism doesn’t even remotely resemble the country on display at an airport named Love in Dallas.

Shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy, Dallas became known as “the City of Hate,” and if this full-page ad that Eddie Rispone paid John Georges to print is any indication, a City of Hate is what he hopes to transform New Orleans into (more later on Rispone):

The Ghost of David Duke:

During a recent Democratic presidential primary debate, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, in lamenting the near-universal decision by prominent leaders of the Republican Party to refuse any public repudiation of a president who has trafficked in bigotry, xenophobia, and white supremacist since he descended the escalators at Trump Tower to announce his campaign, referenced how leaders of the party had denounced former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan when he competed in a runoff election against Edwin Edwards for Louisiana governor in 1991.

Mayor Pete had mistakenly claimed the election was only 20 years ago, and while he was correct that mainstream Republican leaders were opposed to Duke, they weren’t nearly as outspoken in 1991 as they had been only two years prior, when Duke ran for a seat in the Louisiana state House of Representatives against John Treen, the brother of former Gov. Dave Treen. 

Back then, in 1989, both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush recorded phone messages for every voter in the district, urging them to oppose Duke.

It was Lee Atwater’s idea, believe it or not, and it didn’t make a difference. Duke won anyway.

Republicans were caught off-guard by Duke’s success. Early on, David Vitter couldn’t be on the ticket after his residency was challenged. Ironically, Duke never lived in the district, but no one bothered to challenge his residency. No one thought to take him seriously until it was too late.

The following year, when Duke ran for the U.S. Senate against J. Bennett Johnston, the former klansman received 60% of white voters. And despite losing in a landslide to Edwin Edwards in 1991, he still managed to pick up 55% of white voters. I’ve written before about the ways in which the ghost of the very-much-still-alive David Duke continues to haunt Louisiana politics, but in the past four years, it is now impossible to discount the ways in which Duke presaged the electoral success of the current president.

Donald Trump still enjoys high approval numbers in Louisiana, even though, nationally, his approval has always been upside down. Polling analyst David Wasserman recently found that Trump could lose the popular vote by a staggering 10 million votes and still win reelection by cobbling together the right combination of states in the Electoral College.

As Louisiana heads to the polls in October to determine whether Gov. John Bel Edwards should continue to lead the state for another four years, his two major Republican challengers, Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone, have attempted to bolster their campaigns by mimicking Trump’s appeals to nativism and white supremacy, all while feigning surprise and indignation at “lunatic liberals” who criticize campaigns fueling racism, xenophobia, and bigotry.

Ralph Abraham stands in front of his private plane. Source: Ralph Abraham campaign.

The Abra-Fam-Scam:

Shortly after Donald Trump argued that four Democratic members of the U.S. House, all women of color, should go back to their countries, Rep. Abraham offered to pay for their flights. While he may argue it was merely a joke, Abraham was actually just repeating a white supremacist trope that has been a part of the racist vernacular since at least Reconstruction. His comment is all the uglier when one considers that Abraham is an Arab-American, the grandson of immigrants from Lebanon.

Of course, this is not the first time the congressman has offered to pay for something in order to score some cheap political points.

When he first campaigned for Congress, he pledged to donate his entire salary to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and to a charity that provides support, services, and equipment to quadruple amputee wounded veterans.

After a staffer slipped up and told a member of the press that Abraham had intended on keeping his paycheck during a recent government shutdown, his office was forced to acknowledge he had never actually made good on his promise; they have yet to provide any evidence of a substantial donation he made to either charity, though they assert, without any evidence, Abraham gave away his salary during his first two years. Importantly, he prominently featured his pledge to donate his salary on his website when running for a second term and kept references to the pledge on the site when he ran last year for a third term.

He likely owes the two charities between $348,000 to $696,000.

Abraham represents more African Americans than any other Republican in Congress and the tenth-poorest district in the nation. He is campaigning on restricting access to food stamps for those in need, but he and his family have taken in more than $2.6 million in federal farm subsidies.

He also made a small sum suing an oil and gas company.

During a fundraising luncheon in Natchitoches, Abraham, a medical doctor, accused Medicaid recipients of “voting for a living instead of working.”

That’s rich on multiple levels: Ralph Abraham is actually paid to vote for a living (again, money he promised to give away), and he leads the nation in absences from votes.

Shortly after winning, he also told constituents that he would be closing down his medical practice and selling his clinic in Mangham, Louisiana in order to carry out his constitutionally-mandated duties Washington. Two years ago, on Father’s Day, his daughter Ashley praised her dad on Facebook for giving up a “thriving medical practice” to serve the people. Abraham shared her post on his public account.

What both father and daughter neglected to tell their followers: That very year, Ashley and her mother- the congressman’s wife- quietly incorporated a brand new medical clinic in Rayville, Louisiana. Neither of the two are medical professionals, but they found two nurses to staff the rural clinic. And fortunately, they have a medical doctor in the family: Ralph Abraham is the only physician at the clinic; he is deriving an income from it, and when he should have been voting on a critical Flood Insurance bill, he was practicing medicine at his wife’s and daughter’s clinic.

Abraham may have a small private plane and a private practice and a collection of cashed checks totaling in the millions for him and his family, all courtesy of Uncle Sam, but if his opponent, Eddie Rispone, woke up to discover they both had the same net worth, he’d likely sink into a deep depression.

Eddie Rispone: Political “outsider.”

Insider Eddie:

In his first television commercial, Eddie Rispone, the mega-millionaire cofounder of ISC, an electrical installation construction company, delivers a video Val-o-gram to Donald Trump. Trump is mentioned more frequently than Rispone, almost as if the candidate for Louisiana governor was an afterthought.

Rispone may have been largely unknown in Louisiana before he decided to put aside more than $10 million of his own personal fortune in an attempt to purchase the lease on the Governor’s Mansion, but despite his attempt to sell himself as an “outsider,” Eddie Rispone has been one of the most powerful “insiders” for most of his professional career.

Like Abraham, he is a (wealthier) white man who believes the way to win in Louisiana is by campaigning against unauthorized immigrants, demonizing the poor, and mimicking the hateful hyperbole that turned a reality television star who peddled a racist conspiracy theory about Barack Obama being born in a foreign country all the way into the White House. His campaign team is attempting to market Rispone as, literally, “Louisiana’s Donald Trump,” and they’ve already spent a fortune to let voters know Rispone supports the construction of a fantasy border wall (that Mexico was apparently supposed to have already paid for), mass deportations of “illegal immigrants,” and ending “sanctuary cities.”

In Louisiana, that means New Orleans, a city that is 60% African American. Undocumented immigrants compromise approximately 3% of the city’s population, and the vast majority of these immigrants arrived in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, after the Bush Administration suspended laws about prevailing wages in order to help construction companies like Rispone’s hire cheaper labor. Rispone’s vitriol against unauthorized immigrants, who are primarily from Mexico, isn’t only misplaced and hypocritical; it is dangerous and dehumanizing.

In the aftermath of the recent massacre in El Paso, it seems particularly reckless.

As I recently reported on the Bayou Brief, three years ago, Eddie Rispone’s company applied for three H1-B visas in order to allow them the ability to hire foreign workers while they were in the middle of settlement negotiations with 96 former employees, the majority of whom were Hispanic, for alleged wage theft and violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

During the next two months, voters and the media should be willing and able to ask Rispone about his use of foreign workers and the reason he decided to settle with nearly 100 former employees. They should also ask him about his first and only book, Cucho: A Journey from Cuba to Freedom, a biography of Dr. Louis Antonio Balart, Sr.

I read his book. It begins with this dedication (which I presented to resemble a social media meme):

Eddie Rispone has been a behind-the-scenes powerbroker for several years, and he was reportedly a key financier of the campaign to carve out of Baton Rouge a new, breakaway, and predominantly white city called St. George.

Rispone has also been a prominent supporter of the school voucher program, which has been riddled with corruption and failure. While he publicly claims his support of vouchers is animated by his Catholic faith and his earnest hope to help impoverished children receive a high-quality education, the truth appears to be much more cynical and self-interested.

He is directly responsible for creating and lobbying the passage of a law that could be easily exploited as a tax shelter and tax avoidance scheme for himself and other wealthy school voucher donors. In fact, due to changes made under the Trump tax plan, people like Rispone not only can assign the donations they make to voucher schools to cover all of their state tax liability, they can also turn a profit.

In the past, Rispone has donated as much as $1 million in a single year to a voucher school program; if he did the same this year, he could turn a profit of $319,000.

28 years ago, when the former klansman ran for governor, he traded in his sheets and his hood for a suit and a tie; he got plastic surgery. He claimed to be a born-again Christian. He attempted to distance himself from the racist and neo-Nazi beliefs he had been espousing for years.

If you ever have the time and the inclination, search YouTube for the 1991 debates between Edwards and Duke. Duke may have once published articles promoting the idea of racial and ethnic minorities “going back” to other countries, but he tried to be careful- in the same way George Wallace had once been- in couching his racism in coded language.

It would have likely seemed unimaginable to Duke that less than three decades later, the United States would be led by a man who kicked off his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists,” who disparaged a decorated war hero and POW, who mocked a disabled reporter, who called for a “complete and total ban on Muslims” entering the country, who bragged on video about grabbing women by their genitals, who peddled the racist conspiracy theory that his predecessor was not a real American citizen, who defended white supremacists and shared their comments online, who promised to construct an enormous border wall and force Mexico to pay for it, who befriended brutal dictators, who locked children up in cages, who ordered the mass deportation of hundreds of people in the Deep South, leaving small children without their parents, and who told four women of color in the United States Congress to go back to their own countries.

And if you’d told the people of Louisiana, 28 years ago, that two of the top candidates for governor agreed with this man and that one of those candidates was spending millions of his personal fortune to promote his relationship with this man, I bet most people would’ve respond with the same exact question: How the hell did David Duke become President?

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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar writes about the people, the politics, and the magic of Louisiana. He is the founder and publisher of the Bayou Brief and a contributing writer for the Daily Beast. Lamar is best known for his investigative reporting on public corruption, racism, and civil rights. He has appeared as a guest on CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, and he's been the subject of profiles in The Washington Post, The Advocate, and Huffington Post. Before launching the Bayou Brief, he published CenLamar, a popular blog that initially covered the drama of City Hall in his hometown of Alexandria. Lamar is a graduate of Rice University in Houston and the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Today he lives in New Orleans and is currently writing a book about the life of reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello. Support Lamar's work on Patreon.