WASHINGTON (CNN) — Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 3-ranking House Republican, defended his speech before a white supremacist forum in 2002 on Monday night, saying he did not subscribe to their philosophy.
In comments to NOLA.com/Times-Picayune, Scalise reiterated what a spokeswoman said earlier in the day — that he didn’t know who he was speaking to.
“I didn’t know who all of these groups were and I detest any kind of hate group. For anyone to suggest that I was involved with a group like that is insulting and ludicrous,” he said.
According to an agenda for the event and notes attendees posted afterward, Scalise appeared at the National/International EURO Workshop on Civil Rights, a white nationalist organization founded by David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
“When you look at the kind of things they stand for, I detest these kinds of views. As a Catholic, I think some of the things they profess target people like me. At lot of their views run contradictory to the way I run my life,” he added.
Scalise also equated his appearance before the white supremacist forum with one before the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group known for helping to register new voters.
“I spoke to the League of Women Voters, a pretty liberal group. … I still went and spoke to them. I spoke to any group that called, and there were a lot of groups calling,” he said.
The controversy comes just days before Republicans take full control of Congress with House Majority Whip Scalise poised to play a key role in shepherding through conservatives’ legislative priorities.
In a statement, Scalise communications director Moira Smith said the congressman has no ties to the “abhorrent group in question.”
A Scalise source said the 2002 speech came as Scalise was barnstorming his district to discuss a ballot initiative he opposed. The appearance was first reported on Sunday on CenLamar.com, a Louisiana politics blog run by Lamar White Jr.
“Throughout his career in public service, Mr. Scalise has spoken to hundreds of different groups with a broad range of viewpoints. In every case, he was building support for his policies, not the other way around,” Smith said. “In 2002, he made himself available to anyone who wanted to hear his proposal to eliminate slush funds that wasted millions of taxpayer dollars as well as his opposition to a proposed tax increase on middle-class families.”
“He has never been affiliated with the abhorrent group in question,” she said. “The hate-fueled ignorance and intolerance that group projects is in stark contradiction to what Mr. Scalise believes and practices as a father, a husband and a devoted Catholic.”
Politicians in Scalise’s home state of Louisiana rallied to his defense Monday, saying they don’t believe he agrees with the white supremacist group’s ideology.
“I know Congressman Scalise to be a good man who is fair-minded and kindhearted. I’m confident he absolutely rejects racism in all its forms,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement.
But Scalise’s alleged appearance at the event drew a harsh rebuke from Erick Erickson, the conservative RedState.com blogger and former Louisiana resident who asked of the congressman: “How do you not know? How do you not investigate?”
“How the hell does somebody show up at a David Duke organized event in 2002 and claim ignorance?” Erickson wrote in a post Monday.
He said Trent Lott — the former Senate majority leader who was driven from his post after praising Strom Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist presidential campaign — lost his gig “for something less than this” in 2001.
And he pointed to Republicans who hit Mississippi Senate candidate Chris McDaniel in 2014 for attending events hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and for making plans to attend a rally where he was billed along with a white nationalist.