Black lawmakers say House GOP Whip Steve Scalise has to do more than say he’s sorry for addressing a white supremacist group when he was a Louisiana state lawmaker 12 years ago.
If Scalise wants to repair his battered image, he needs to put actions behind declarations that he’s no bigot, they say.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) has invited Scalise to sit down with Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members and explain his views, while Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) has urged him to follow former Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) lead and join this year’s 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” Selma March.
Even Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), who said Scalise didn’t have a “racist bone in his body” when the news broke that Scalise has spoken to a group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, said his friend has work to do.
“If I was Steve, I would be concerned about my legacy if I died tomorrow,” Richmond, the only black member of the Pelican State’s delegation, told The Hill in an interview on Thursday. “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.
“I would be concerned about that," Richmond added, "and I would do some things to prove that he’s the kind of person I think he is, which is that he’s a person who cares about people."
While GOP leaders have backed their colleague publicly, some Republicans also think their chief vote-counter has to do more to restore his name.
The majority whip is the House GOP’s third-ranking leader, and is supposed to raise money around the country for his party and regularly appear on television to outline GOP principles. For now, an appearance by Scalise would be dominated by questions about the 2002 address and the rest of his record on racial issues.
“I think Steve would be prudent to put some actions to his words,” said one southern GOP lawmaker.
Scalise spokeswoman Moira Smith declined to comment about whether her boss was planning any future speeches, meetings or legislation on racial issues.
She instead pointed to his past statement calling the 2002 speech to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) conference “a mistake I regret.” He’s explained that he had a meager staff back then that didn’t fully vet EURO, and that his speech was focused on stopping tax hikes and wasteful spending.
Scalise has kept a low public profile since the story broke, but behind the scenes has reached out to Republican colleagues to shore up support, GOP sources said.
In Wednesday’s closed-door caucus meeting, Scalise addressed the controversy head-on and gave “heartfelt thanks” to his colleagues for supporting him through the ordeal, said one source who was in the room.
“I reject bigotry of all forms,” Scalise told reporters at a leadership news conference after the meeting.
A chorus of conservative voices, including Charles Krauthammer, Erick Erickson and Sarah Palin, have called on Scalise to resign from GOP leadership. On Thursday, the liberal group Bend the Arc Jewish Action joined in, saying: “If Rep. Scalise will not step down on his own, Speaker Boehner should remove him from leadership.”
So far, CBC members and many top Democrats have not followed suit.
That may be a strategic calculation. Just as Democrats successfully tied other Republicans to Senate candidate Todd Akin’s cringe-worthy “legitimate rape” remarks in the 2012 election, they’re trying to make Scalise the boogeyman of the 2016 cycle.
“The Democratic strategy of extending the misery of Scalise matter is working. Every single Republican — whether you are running for the House or president of the United States — will have to answer the question,” said one Democratic strategist. “Clearly, Boehner should have dealt with this quickly like he strives to do with his zero tolerance policy on ethics matters. Instead, if this guy stays, every Republican will pay a price for it.”
Scalise voted against making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a state holiday when he was in the Louisiana Legislature in 2004, something that also was troubling to CBC members who have a personal connection to the late civil-rights leader. GOP sources said Scalise was concerned that creating another holiday would cost the state too much money.
“In a state with that many minorities there to start with, and knowing what Martin Luther King means to a lot of Americans, it says that [Scalise] was not current with the conventional thinking of the time,” said Thompson, who visited with Dr. King for several hours when the civil rights leader visited his college in 1967.
“If he’s a changed man and is color blind or whatever,” the Mississippi congressman added, “then I think actions going forward, maybe coming to speak to the Congressional Black Caucus or signing on to our initiative for Voting Rights, may be a start.”
Questions about the King vote are likely to continue ahead of the federal holiday on Jan. 19.
Asked Thursday about Scalise’s votes against the holiday, Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE (R-Ohio) said: “I’m not familiar with his votes in the past in any way, shape or form.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), a former CBC chairman, said claiming Scalise’s scalp is not the goal.
“I’m not so much concerned about Scalise stepping down; I’m more concerned with Republicans stepping up,” said Cummings, the top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“To address the issue of blocking African-Americans and minorities from being able to vote, and stepping up to help create an environment that fosters diversity, inclusion and fairness — that’s what I’m more concerned about.”
Added new CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.): “We do not plan to dwell on it, but instead hope that we can turn this into an opportunity to work with Mr. Scalise on some of our most pressing issues.”
Jackson Lee, who represents much of inner city Houston, made the march in Selma with Cantor two years ago, and she said Scalise would be wise to do the same this spring.
“Anything that opens his eyes to our perspective of that speech and meeting with those individuals would be a great leap forward,” Jackson Lee told The Hill.
Richmond, who served with Scalise in the Louisiana statehouse, worked closely with the Republican last year to pass a post-Katrina flood-protection bill. He said he’s had opportunities to speak extensively with Scalise about the top priorities of the African-American community, including criminal justice reform and renewal of the Voting Rights Act
Richmond hasn’t heard any griping from fellow Democrats after speaking up for Scalise, but he is facing tremendous “blowback” from constituents in his district, he acknowledged.
“It wasn’t a decision about how popular I would be once I did it. It was really a response to a very pointed question of whether he’s a racist,” Richmond said in the interview.
“Is he too damn conservative? Yes. Can he be difficult at times? Yes. But I think there is a far difference between a conservative and a racist.”