Wounded Scalise opens up about race

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise said he was “frustrated” and “hurt” by the media coverage of his speech to a white supremacist group, arguing his past work helping African-Americans in New Orleans was deliberately ignored.

“When you get into this line of work, you’re in public office, you expect you’re gonna have cheap shots taken at you. That’s part of the process,” the Louisiana Republican said.

“The thing that probably frustrated me and hurt me the most was when there were inaccurate stories written about me or stories that were written that were trying to imply or infer things that weren’t true.”

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In an exclusive sit-down interview with The Hill, the third-ranking House Republican spoke extensively for the first time about his speech more than a dozen years ago to a hate group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

Some Democrats and conservative commentators quickly labeled him a racist for the 2002 speech to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, also known as EURO.

In January, The Hill reported that Scalise, as a state lawmaker in 1996, had tried to kill a resolution apologizing for the role slavery played in Louisiana’s history, while other reports highlighted his votes against the creation of a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

At times, the political future of Scalise, a staunch conservative who rose last year to become the GOP’s chief vote-counter in the House, appeared uncertain. But Scalise seems to have weathered the storm, and he’s now embracing a new description: political survivor.

Scalise said the media constructed a “false narrative” about his racial views.

“At the end of the day, I also reject bigotry and I reject things that they [EURO] stood for,” Scalise said.

Before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Scalise spent his Saturdays coaching a basketball team made up of kids from a local housing project. And for a decade, Scalise served on the board of Teach for America of New Orleans, where he pushed for reforms to what he called “one of the most failed and corrupt public school systems in the country.”

“We had an almost 90 percent African-American population. And kids that were graduating that couldn’t even pass the exit exam, they were being denied opportunities,” Scalise recalled. “We replaced it with a system of charter schools that have literally transformed not only the system, but have transformed people’s lives.”

The basketball league where Scalise volunteered was based in the B.W. Cooper Apartments, a crime-ridden public housing project in the heart of New Orleans. The only reason he stopped, Scalise says, is because Katrina’s floodwaters heavily damaged the gymnasium and most of the housing units in the neighborhood.

“The kids I coached, every single one of them, either had a friend who had been shot or killed in drug violence. And these were kids just looking for a way out,” Scalise said. “One of my kids was shot in a drive-by shooting just standing on his porch. These are kids on the front lines of inner-city violence.

“Nobody wanted to talk about that because it didn’t fit the false narrative,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m really proud of the work I did to help kids get an equal opportunity, and a lot of them have.”

Scalise’s new willingness to sit down with local and national news outlets is a signal that he plans to take a more visible role in leadership. He spent the first part of 2015 keeping his head down and mostly avoiding reporters.

The whole experience, Scalise said, has helped him develop “some thick skin.” But he acknowledged the barrage of negative press took a toll on him.

A practicing Catholic and married father of two, Scalise, 49, says he was particularly troubled when Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond — one of his close friends from his days in the Louisiana statehouse — suffered blowback for coming to his defense.

When the controversy first erupted, the African-American lawmaker declared that Scalise didn’t have a “racist bone in his body,” and Richmond has helped facilitate meetings between Scalise and black leaders in recent weeks.  

“Some of those people were attacked for trying to tell the truth. I think that’s wrong,” Scalise said. “If telling the truth about somebody becomes something you’re open to attack on, that’s a real problem with some of how this town works.”

The four-term congressman might not be serving in House leadership today had it not been for Richmond, whose defense Republicans repeatedly cite whenever they're asked about the scandal. Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock From learning on his feet to policy director MORE (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also chose to back Scalise as the controversy unfolded.

Not all Republicans believe that Scalise is in the clear. As whip, Scalise is supposed to be one of the top fundraisers for House Republicans. But it’s unlikely that Republicans who represent swing districts would want help from someone with so much political baggage, said one former GOP leadership aide.

“If you’re [Rep.] Martha McSally [R-Ariz.] or [Rep.] Elise Stefanik [R-N.Y], do you want Steve Scalise to come to your district right now?” the aide said. “That’s a real problem.”

When a local blogger broke the story just after Christmas, Scalise initially blamed his appearance at the EURO conference on the fact that he had just one staff member at the time and insisted he wasn’t aware of what the group stood for.

Since then, he’s accepted responsibility, apologized and called it a “mistake” for agreeing to speak to any group that would listen to his plans for ending slush funds and stopping a proposed tax hike.

In an effort to repair his relationship with the African-American community, Scalise held separate meetings with new Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldDemocrats likely to gain seats under new North Carolina maps North Carolina poised to pass new congressional maps Black leaders say African American support in presidential primary is fluid MORE (D-N.C.), Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.), and civil rights leaders Wade Henderson and Marc Morial, the former New Orleans mayor.

So far, he hasn’t taken up their suggestions that he co-sponsor voting-rights legislation or give a floor speech apologizing for his actions.

But Scalise could be walking arm-in-arm with some prominent civil rights figures next year. He’s accepted an invitation to join the annual reenactment of the historic march in Selma, Ala.