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Scalise Admits "Mistake," Is Backed by Fellow GOP Leaders

Scalise Admits "Mistake," Is Backed by Fellow GOP Leaders

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - December 30, 2014

The House’s third-ranking Republican said Tuesday that speaking to a white supremacist group in 2002 was “a mistake I regret.”

Majority Whip Steve Scalise signaled he will not resign his role in light of the controversy. Other House GOP leaders lined up behind him, dispelling notions that they worry his staying on the leadership team will hinder the conference as the new Congress is seated next week.

Speaker John Boehner said he has “full confidence” in the Louisiana congressman, calling him a “man of high integrity and good character,” and lauding him for admitting to an “inappropriate” error in judgment. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he knows Scalise “does not share the beliefs of that organization.”

The lawmaker, who won a fourth term in November, came under fire this week after news broke that he spoke at a conference outside New Orleans of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, led by well-known former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

Scalise was a state legislator at the time and said he did not know about the group’s agenda or background and spoke at the gathering about his opposition to a local spending and tax bill. In an interview with the Times-Picayune, Scalise attributed his attendance to having minimal staff without the resources to vet organizations and invitations to speaking engagements. “I didn't have a scheduler back then. I was without the advantages of a tool like Google,” he told the paper on Monday.

The congressman was elected majority whip in June after Eric Cantor’s surprising loss in the Virginia primary led to a re-shuffling of the GOP leadership team. Scalise is well liked in the conference and was chosen as the chief vote counter, in part, because he fills a Southern void on the team. As questions arose this week about Scalise’s connection, if any, to the white supremacist organization, the whip capitalized on relationships forged through his post to draw support from colleagues.

Members of the Louisiana delegation, including the state’s lone Democrat, rushed to his side: “I don't think Steve Scalise has a racist bone in his body," Rep. Cedric Richmond told the Times-Picayune. Gov. Bobby Jindal also backed him.

Amid mounting pressure, especially as Republicans prepare to take full control of Congress next week, Scalise released his own statement Tuesday afternoon to try to clear the air. “It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold,” he said of the 2002 appearance.

“I am very disappointed that anyone would try to infer otherwise for political gain. As a Catholic, these groups hold views that are vehemently opposed to my own personal faith, and I reject that kind of hateful bigotry.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center has called on the congressman to resign his leadership role, and Democrats also pounced. Nancy Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill, called Scalise’s “involvement” with the organization “deeply troubling for a top Republican leader in the House.” Hammill also tried to tie the controversy to the broader GOP membership: “Actions speak louder than whatever Steve Scalise said to that group in 2002,” he said. “Just this year, House Republicans have refused to restore the Voting Rights Act or pass comprehensive immigration reform.” Notably, though, Democratic leaders have not called for Scalise to resign.

Scalise also came under scrutiny from conservative blogger and activist Erick Erickson. “How the hell does somebody show up at a David Duke organized event in 2002 and claim ignorance?” Erikson wrote on his website, RedState. Erickson pointed to former Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, who resigned his leadership post in 2001 after making a controversial statement about segregationist-era Strom Thurmond.

Scalise acknowledged to the Times-Picayune that he and everyone in Louisiana was familiar with Duke and his background at the time (Duke, a former state legislator, has run unsuccessfully for governor, U.S. Senate and president). But Scalise noted that Duke was not at the event at which he spoke and he was not aware of the affiliation. Kenny Knight, Duke’s political adviser, apparently invited Scalise, a neighbor at the time, to the event, according to an interview with the Washington Post on Tuesday. Knight told the Post that Scalise spoke at the beginning of the conference and left after his speech, and that he did not see or hear Duke speak by remote satellite from Russia, where he was living at the time.

So far, Scalise’s job appears to be safe, as supporters say the 2002 speech was a one-time mistake and not part of a pattern. But if the latter is established, the ground would become shakier for the majority whip.

While Scalise now has the full backing and confidence of his fellow GOP leaders, the issue serves as one of a several distractions facing the conference heading into the new session. New York Rep. Michael Grimm announced Monday night that he will resign his seat after pleading guilty to tax fraud. Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold is currently being sued by a former staffer for gender discrimination and creating a “hostile” work environment. Democrats are likely to continue highlighting these cases throughout the next session.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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