Black Dem faces blowback over support for House GOP Whip Scalise

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Rep. Cedric Richmond is advising fellow Louisiana lawmaker Steve Scalise as the Republican leader quietly begins outreach efforts aimed at repairing his frayed relationship with the black community.

Richmond, an African-American Democrat from New Orleans, was Scalise’s most vocal defender after revelations the House GOP whip addressed a white supremacist group as a Louisiana state lawmaker in 2002.

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In the weeks since then, Richmond has served as an informal liaison between Scalise and the African-American community. The two have held several private discussions, with Richmond encouraging his colleague to meet with black leaders to confront the simmering controversy.

“I thought it was a good idea so people would understand [his] rationale and get a chance to interact,” Richmond told The Hill this week just off the House floor. “I think Steve just wanted to get his bearings, then take a deep breath and now [begin his] outreach and meeting with people.”

Earlier this week, Richmond spoke with Scalise about his meeting next Tuesday with two black leaders in the House: Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and new Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.). They also discussed a future meeting between Scalise and two black civil rights leaders — Marc Morial and Wade Henderson — who have publicly questioned whether Scalise should step down from the No. 3 job in House GOP leadership.

Scalise has personally thanked Richmond for coming to his defense.

But in the African-American community, not all are thrilled about the actions of the last black lawmaker in Louisiana’s congressional delegation, who remarked when the scandal broke that Scalise doesn’t have “a racist bone in his body.”

Richmond has acknowledged receiving some “blowback” from constituents back home in Louisiana’s majority-black 2nd District. A blogger suggested Richmond is playing the role of fictional D.C. fixer Olivia Pope ("Scandal") in the Scalise scandal.

And at least one fellow Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) member suggested Richmond might be defending Scalise for political expediency.

“People are deferring to Cedric, thinking they can rely on Cedric’s good judgment, and in this case I don’t think we can,” said the CBC lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the controversy. “I think Cedric is angling for other reasons because Scalise is part of leadership. He’s thinking in some way he can benefit for his district and his state.

“But I think he’s gone out there too far and now he needs to figure out how to reel himself back in,” the lawmaker continued. “I think he’s in over his head. He put too much faith in his so-called ‘friend.’ It’s kind of difficult to defend the Klansmen, OK?”

Richmond took exception to the anonymous attack, saying not a single CBC member has confronted him about defending Scalise, a man he has known since 2000 when he first joined the state Legislature.

“I’m not going to respond to a comment from an unnamed member. I’m fine if they want to say that but they should attribute their name to it,” Richmond said in a separate interview earlier this month. “There’s a lot that could emerge … but I’m basing [my defense] on what I know and my relationship. For those people who don’t have a relationship with him, it makes all the sense in the world for them to draw those conclusions.”

Black leaders argue that what’s emerged so far is a “disgusting” pattern of missteps that show Scalise had little regard for the feelings and plight of African-Americans.

Not only did Scalise speak to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), a white supremacist group founded by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, he twice voted in the state Legislature against creating a holiday in Louisiana honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. And during his first year in public office in 1996, he led an effort to try to kill a resolution apologizing for slavery in Louisiana.  

Once in Congress, Scalise voted against naming a U.S. post office after Lionel Collins, a civil rights lawyer and the first African-American judge in Jefferson Parish, La., black leaders pointed out.

Scalise spokeswoman Moira Smith has not responded to multiple emails from The Hill seeking comment on a series of stories about the controversy. Scalise has called the speech to EURO “a mistake," expressing "regret,” but has not explained his controversial votes.

“He doesn’t sound like a good actor,” lamented Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), a CBC member and former state legislator who said she’s experienced both obvious and subtle forms of racism all of her life. “I am concerned because his record dictates to me that he is not sensitive to the issues of African-American people. If he can vote twice against the Martin Luther King bill … I know legislators from Florida who did that — I know their character.”

And Wilson, 72, who said she heard a “bone-chilling” speech by King when she was a college student, suggested there might be a generational divide between some of the older lawmakers and Richmond, 41, who was born after the civil rights movement.

“People’s lives are products of their experiences, and Cedric is basing his beliefs on his experiences and I’m basing mine on my experiences,” Wilson said. “My experience is, if you voted against the Martin Luther King holiday twice, then you don’t have a real sensitivity to the needs of African-Americans. You cannot have a real appreciation for the contributions of African-American people to this nation.”

Last year, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) sat down to discuss poverty issues with the entire Black Caucus after making some inartful remarks about “generations of men” in inner cities having no desire to find work or learn to “value the culture of work."

But Scalise’s meeting next week with Clyburn will be a small gathering. The assistant Democratic leader has known Scalise ever since he traveled down to New Orleans a decade ago to lead Congress’s efforts in aiding victims of Hurricane Katrina, but Clyburn said he never really was close to Scalise after that.

The two men found themselves standing face to face last week, waiting to escort President Obama into the House chamber for his State of the Union address.

“I said at that time, ‘Maybe the two of us need to sit down and have a little chat,’” Clyburn recalled.

His phone rang on Tuesday, the day after the presidential speech; it was Scalise’s office inviting him to a meeting in exactly one week.

Neither Clyburn nor Morial, the head of the National Urban League, would preview what they planned to discuss with Scalise. But other CBC members have said they want to see Scalise follow his apology with actions, such as co-sponsoring voting rights legislation or joining the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” Selma march.

Morial says he and Scalise go back nearly two decades. The two met on a weekly basis when Morial  was serving as the Democratic mayor of New Orleans and the congressman was a New Orleans-area state lawmaker.

Scalise called Morial on Monday night to set up a meeting. And for now, Morial said he wants to give Scalise a chance to explain things in his own words.

“My point of view right now is to hold my fire and keep an open mind,” Morial said in a phone interview. “It’s easy to jump up and say, ‘Quit. The person should leave.’ I wouldn’t take any of that off the table. We are committed to having the dialogue, but we have to be met half way.

“We have no permanent friends, and no permanent enemies. We only have permanent interests in civil rights and economic opportunities.”