I exposed Steve Scalise's white nationalist past -- and yet he may soon become even more powerful

As House GOP reshuffles leaders, congressman with David Duke ties may become second most powerful representative

Published September 29, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Despite his denials, there is no conceivable way Rep. Steve Scalise did not know David Duke, the notorious white supremacist, was the leader of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), the hate group that hosted the conference he attended in 2002.

In the wake of House Speaker John Boehner's resignation and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's expected promotion to speaker, Scalise, currently the House majority whip, is now running for majority leader, the second most powerful position in the U.S. House. Unsurprisingly, this means renewed attention to the scandalous revelation, first reported in late December by a blogger from Louisiana, that Scalise addressed an international conference of white supremacists when he was a state representative.

Less than a day after it was first reported, Scalise acknowledged the story was indeed true. He issued a halfhearted apology and claimed he was unaware, at the time, of the organization's affiliation with the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He was there, he said, merely to speak in opposition to a tax proposal, the Stelly Tax Plan, that was being debated in the Legislature.

I know this story very well, because I am the blogger from Louisiana who broke it wide open. I also know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Steve Scalise was painfully aware of where he was and whom he was addressing. The writing was literally on the wall.

Even though Scalise admitted and apologized for his participation in the meeting, he has yet to be completely honest with the American public. He was not there to speak about the Stelly Tax Plan; at the time, the bill had only been pre-filed, and the debate about it actually kicked off months later.

In order to appreciate how completely implausible it would be for Scalise not to know of David Duke's involvement and his role with the hate group EURO, one must first understand the unique and tiny universe of Republican politics in Scalise's home: Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, which, perhaps not coincidentally, is also the home of David Duke.

The massive growth and development of Jefferson Parish is largely attributable to suburban white flight from New Orleans in the aftermath of school integration, the civil rights movement, and the construction of the Interstate highway system. For most of its history and throughout the majority of the 20th century, New Orleans was a majority white city. In 1970, African-Americans comprised 45 percent of the population of New Orleans; by 2000, their share of the population had surged to 68 percent. To be sure, in the aftermath of the diaspora caused by Hurricane Katrina, the city's African-American population has decreased significantly, and although it is still a majority-minority city, its mayor and three of the seven members of its city council are white. Regardless, New Orleans politics are dramatically different from Jefferson Parish politics. Whereas Orleans Parish has remained a deep blue enclave in a red state, Jefferson Parish, for the last four decades, has been home to the state's most radical, controversial and most incendiary Republican politicos. Currently, a leading candidate for state Senate, former state Rep. John LaBruzzo, is campaigning on a promise to require mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients, and the leading Republican candidate for governor, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, also from Jefferson Parish, is running radio ads and writing open letters in support of monuments glorifying Confederate generals and white supremacy.

Racist antipathy helped build Jefferson Parish, and it continues to inform its political landscape. When David Duke ran for state representative in 1989, then-President George H.W. Bush and former President Ronald Reagan publicly endorsed Duke's opponent, Republican John Treen, the brother of former Louisiana Gov. Dave Treen. It was unprecedented and stunning for a president and a former president to involve themselves in a state House race, but Bush and Reagan understood the danger David Duke posed to the Republican Party. Jefferson Parish voters disagreed, however, and with the eyes of the world on them, they elected the former grand wizard of the KKK as their representative to the state Capitol in Baton Rouge.

At the time, one of David Duke's most well-known and fiercely loyal campaign staffers was a former New Orleans police officer named Kenny Knight. Knight first became famous in Louisiana for leading a police union strike in 1979 that resulted in the cancellation of Mardi Gras. His relationship with David Duke is extensively documented, and he remained a loyal foot soldier for Duke for more than two decades.

Kenny Knight was also neighbors with Steve Scalise. For many years, the two lived nearby on Jefferson Heights Avenue in Metairie. The two men definitely knew one other. It was Knight, not Duke, who invited Scalise to speak at the 2002 EURO conference.

Louisiana is a small state, and trust me, everyone knows everyone else in Jefferson Parish Republican politics. And everyone, especially the then-two-term, 36-year-old state Rep. Steve Scalise, knew exactly who his neighbor Kenny Knight was, and what he was about. Knight, it's worth noting, was named as a registered agent in David Duke's organization in reports submitted to the Louisiana secretary of state and as the organization's contact person in Louisiana.

Knight, more than anyone else, is also responsible for salvaging Steve Scalise's career in Congress. Two days after I broke the news of Scalise's attendance at the conference and only a day after Scalise himself confirmed the story's veracity, Knight told a reporter at the Times-Picayune that the congressman had actually addressed a meeting of the Jefferson Heights Civic Association. He claimed the meeting had occurred hours before the white supremacist conference kicked off, that he decided to host the civic association meeting at this particular venue (despite the fact that it was more than five miles away from Jefferson Heights) because of convenience, and that he and Scalise both left together afterward and never returned.

Almost immediately after Knight's remarks were published, I began receiving threats. The story, to which Scalise had already admitted, was called into question by conservative bloggers. Politifact declared it was unclear if the story was true, relying entirely on Knight's version to obscure the facts.

But shortly thereafter, Knight's entire story unraveled. There was no such thing as the Jefferson Heights Civic Association. Knight did not leave the event with Steve Scalise. In fact, only a month later, a photograph of him addressing the conference appeared in David Duke's newsletter.

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Kenny Knight is a liar, and his lies spared his former neighbor additional ridicule and criticism. Steve Scalise survived, battered and bruised but not broken. “It was a painful time,” he told reporter Tyler Bridges in a story published by Politico. “You saw people trying to destroy my reputation. It was the ugly side of politics that you see from time to time.”

For me, this had nothing to do with destroying the congressman's "reputation"; this was about holding our elected officials accountable for their actions and their associations. It was about the judgment of the third most powerful member of the U.S. House of Representatives. I do not know Steve Scalise personally, but I know, for certain, that he is not being honest.

I understand and empathize with the pain my story caused him and his family. During the last several months, I've received numerous threats, both online and in person. I've been cautioned by experts about surveillance and the risks associated with exposing the activities of hate groups. A few days ago, a former candidate for Louisiana state representative, a Republican from the New Orleans area, expressed his hope on the Facebook page of Louisiana's speaker pro tempore that I'd kill myself because of what I wrote about Rep. Scalise.

No matter what he says, Steve Scalise is not "David Duke without the baggage." He has baggage, and if he is to become House majority leader, he should account for it, once and for all.

By Lamar White Jr.

Lamar White, Jr. is a native of Alexandria, Louisiana, and has been writing about Louisiana politics for nearly a decade on his website, CenLamar. He has a juris doctor from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, a bachelors from Rice University in Houston, and is currently a doctoral candidate in political communication at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

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