Is Pressure Mounting for a Scalise Resignation?

(first appeared @phillytrib)

It was only a matter of time before Republicans, freshly recharged for a majority grip on the new 114th Congress, found themselves slammed head first into a wall of racial controversy.

With an expanded super-majority in the House of Representatives, congressional Republicans appeared under siege from new allegations their No. 3 leader, House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), had spoken before a Louisiana-based white supremacist group in 2002, while serving as a state legislator. Scalise quickly admitted to the embarrassing episode, clearly seeking the protection of a public mea culpa and hoping the scandal would simply blow over.

But even as details of it became a bit fuzzy — with an assertion from Kenneth Knight, a longtime Scalise friend and operative to infamous Louisiana Klansmen David Duke, that the congressman had actually given remarks before a neighborhood civics association — uncomfortable questions continue to dog the fast-rising GOP star.

What did he know, and what didn’t he know?

Knight admits that he used a hotel conference room he typically rented out to the Duke-led EURO group for his hood’s “civic association” business. But what to make of an Iowa little league baseball team cancelled its reservations at the same Best Western around the same time to avoid what was described as a small “convention” of open racists? If an out-of-state little league team knew to stay away from it, how did an in-state lawmaker representing the district miss it?

While Republicans are privately miffed that their newly-minted House majority whip would be so gullible, publicly it’s a different tune. Expecting that the slow holiday news cycle cut them a break from the controversy, many Republican politicians, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), appeared to stand behind their man in the week leading up to the opening of the 114th Congress.

Conservative commentators and social media flacks were actively deployed on the debate circuit eagerly sparring with liberal commentators and Black-thought leaders. Predictably, comparisons were made between David Duke, lifetime member of a violent racist organization espousing armed national revolt, and Black activists with no histories of violence such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Nation of lslam’s Minister Louis Farrakhan. And if Scalise was being vilified for hob-knobbing with white supremacist political strategists, then why not blast Democrats for their questionable affiliations to controversial groups?

“You have other cases. You had Bob Byrd, who was the majority leader, who was a Klan leader. You had Hugo Black, who was a justice, who was a Klan leader. But they were Democrats. So being in the Klan was okay,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) on CBS’s Face the Nation defending Scalise.

But even as Republicans and conservatives erected defensive positions around their beleaguered House Majority Whip, Scalise found support from an important and unlikely ally: Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), Louisiana’s only Black and Democratic Congressman.

“I don’t think Steve Scalise has a racist bone in his body,” Richmond told the state’s largest news publication the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “Steve and I have worked on issues that benefit poor people, Black people, white people, Jewish people. I know his character.”

The sudden solid from the young congressman overseeing Louisiana’s 2nd congressional district, which includes most of New Orleans, stunned many observers, including many in the black advocacy and political community who were hoping the state’s lone African-American congressman had taken a harder line.

Instead, many insiders suggest Richmond prefers political expediency over an opportunity to use the moment as a leveraging opportunity in his relationship with Scalise. Others suggested the congressman’s defense of Scalise as part of his overall signature conciliatory style.

“Cedric doesn’t rock the boat,” says one.

Richmond had served previously as a Louisiana state legislator from 2000 to 2011, during the same time Scalise was rising through the state’s GOP ranks.

“This is an opportunity for issues like the Voting Rights Act to come into play,” a former senior congressional aide told The Tribune speaking on condition of anonymity. “He really ought to call Scalise, do a frequent lunch and start negotiating. Show some leadership by confronting Scalise and saying ‘hey, you’re in power and you have influence to get stuff like VRA through and to really decrease poverty in our state.’”

“See, now that’s a player move.”

While there’s no way of knowing what Richmond’s motives are, critics charge that now is not the time to go soft on Scalise when Louisiana’s Black poverty rate is nearly 40 percent and the state is refusing to approve Medicaid expansion at a time when many of the state’s uninsured African Americans could use it.

Richmond had still not responded to the Tribune’s calls for comments. When the Tribune relayed a scathing joint letter to Scalise from former New Orleans, Louisiana Mayor Marc Morial, now head of the National Urban League, and Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, Richmond’s office was unaware of it.

Yet, on the same day the nation’s largest Black newspaper talked with Richmond’s press secretary, the congressman found time do an interview with The Hill — a mainstream Capitol Hill daily — in which he seemed to back track from his previous defense of Scalise.

“If I was Steve, I would be concerned about my legacy if I died tomorrow,” Richmond told The Hill. “And I’m sure he doesn’t want his legacy to be he spoke to a David Duke crowd, a group of racists, and therefore he’s racist.”

By week’s end, other Black members of Congress seemed to be lining up for a showdown with Republican leadership over Scalise, with many calling for a sit down with the House majority whip to discuss a broad range of issues. Members such as Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), all from southern states, were openly urging a meeting with Scalise to discuss his position on reviving the Voting Rights Act, a law that took a beating when critical provisions were struck down in a Supreme Court decision last year.

“Voting rights is a bipartisan issue,” said the National Urban League’s Channelle Hardy, who’s arguing for a congressional fix to the VRA after the SCOTUS ruling. “The 114th Congress must act this year to pass legislation that will restore the VRA’s vital protections to insure that voters are not subjected to discriminatory practices.”

Sources tell the Tribune that there is tremendous pressure on the Congressional Black Caucus as a unified block of now 46 members to make a dramatic push for Scalise’s resignation. While it would be mostly symbolic, many political observers see this as an important moment for the caucus as it attempts to find greater influence in an increasingly hostile political environment in Congress.

Still, the CBC’s new chairman, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) seemed rather reticent about sparring with Republicans over their whip’s fate. “We do not plan to dwell on it,” Butterfield told The Tribune in a statement. “Members of our caucus have varying opinions on Rep. Scalise’s actions. Although he didn’t say anything derogatory or offensive that we know of, many in our caucus find it disturbing that in recent years an elected official would agree to speak before a well-known white supremacy group. [We] hope that we can turn this into an opportunity to work with Mr. Scalise on some of our most pressing issues.”

That was also the message from Morial and Henderson, although a bit more forceful in a sharply worded Jan. 6th letter to Scalise. Not only did the letter cast doubt on the House Majority Whip’s claimed ignorance of the event, but it cited a number of other occasions where Scalise seemed to side with Klan-affiliated positions: as a state legislator, he was one of six lawmakers that voted in 2004 against the official observance of late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in Louisiana. As a congressman, he then blocked naming a post office after Lionel Collins, the first African-American judge in Jefferson Parrish, Louisiana. Scalise blocking the bill forced its sponsor, Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) to eventually drop it from subcommittee consideration.

“There is a question about whether your 2002 speech to EURO was a subtle ‘dog whistle’ of affinity to David Duke’s group of supporters,” the letter said. “While we would prefer not to believe this, as you might imagine, we believe the questions surrounding the current controversy deserve further clarification.

“It seems implausible to us that, as a state representative with national aspirations at the time, you would not have heard about the Louisiana-based EURO, which was already a well-known hate group led by America’s most famous white supremacist.”

Still, Hampton University professor and political communications expert Wayne Dawkins argues that the Black political establishment has better things to do with its time. “They’d be doing Scalise a favor by calling for his resignation,” Dawkins contends. “Unlike decades ago, in 2015 Scalise isn’t a racially hostile threat. Instead, he’s an embarrassment to a national Republican Party that wants to prove they don’t have a race problem.”

“Why let Scalise and the GOP off the hook by demanding that the congressman lose his new political job as House Whip? Second, there may be less enthusiasm in focusing on Scalise because of the news cycle. Many Black leaders remain focused on police brutality.”

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