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The controversy over House GOP whip Steve Scalise's speech to racists, explained

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

One of the top House Republican leaders is in big trouble this week, as reports have emerged that Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana spoke at a gathering of white supremacists in 2002. Here's Vox's guide to the controversy.

1) Who is Steve Scalise?

Steve Scalise

Steve Scalise (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call Group / Getty)

Steve Scalise is the House Majority Whip, the number-three position in the chamber's Republican leadership. The whip is responsible for lining up the votes that the leadership needs to pass its agenda — "whipping" individual members of Congress to follow the party line (it's the job Frank Underwood initially held in House of Cards). Scalise represents Louisiana's first district, covering the southeast of the state, which includes many suburbs and parishes east of New Orleans.

Scalise has only been the whip for a few months. In June of 2014, Eric Cantor's shocking primary defeat led to the previous whip, Kevin McCarthy, becoming the new Majority Leader — opening up his spot for Scalise.

Though some viewed Scalise as the representative of Southerners and conservatives in House leadership, many conservative activists actually have little love for Scalise. In late 2012, he was elected to chair the Republican Study Committee — the House's large conservative caucus — but all of the group's founding members opposed his selection. He was viewed as close to the leadership rather than to ideological conservatives. The following year, Scalise fired the committee's longtime executive chairman Paul Teller, a staunch conservative, for working with outside groups to oppose the Republicans' budget deal.

2) Why is Scalise in trouble?

Reports have emerged that Scalise spoke at a May 2002 gathering of white nationalist leaders — a "workshop on civil rights" from a group called the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) in Metairie, Louisiana. Days ago, blogger Lamar White, Jr., uncovered old posts on the racist website Stormfront from an attendee of the conference, who wrote:

The meeting was productive locally as State Representative, Steve Scalise, discussed ways to oversee gross mismanagement of tax revenue or 'slush funds' that have little or no accountability. Representative Scalise brought into sharp focus the dire circumstances pervasive in many important, under-funded needs of the community at the expense of graft within the Housing and Urban Development Fund, an apparent five-away to a selective group based on race.

On Monday, a spokesperson for Scalise confirmed to the Washington Post's Robert Costa that Scalise likely did speak at the EURO event. Scalise himself said he had no memory or records of doing so, but acknowledged he had done so in a Tuesday statement. He called the speech "a mistake I regret," and added, "I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold."

3) What is EURO?

EURO stands for European-American Unity and Rights Organization, and it was originally founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader and Louisiana politician David Duke. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group "was modeled on civil rights groups like the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza and meant to fight against what Duke argued was widespread discrimination against whites by minorities." The group was originally called NOFEAR, until a lawsuit from the No Fear Inc. clothing company prompted a name change, to EURO.

At the time of the 2002 event Scalise attended, Duke was identifying himself as EURO's president, but he had moved to Russia. Duke says he gave a speech at a EURO conference around that time condemning "the Jewish supremacist power." Here's what EURO's website looked like in 2002 (via Ryan Lizza):

EURO website 2002

4) Who is David Duke?

David Duke

David Duke, during a 1999 appearance on Meet the Press. (Richard Ellis / Hulton Archive / Getty)

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Duke, a well-known racist and anti-Semite, "is the most recognizable figure of the American radical right."

Duke joined the Ku Klux Klan at age 17, and was reportedly involved with white supremacist and neo-Nazi activities in college. In the mid-1970s, not long after graduation, he helped found a new chapter of the KKK — the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — in Louisiana, and became its "grand wizard." Notorious for being both anti-black and anti-Jewish, and also for his love of media attention, he essentially became the public face of the KKK for several years. At the end of the 1970s, he quit the KKK and founded a new, more mainstream-sounding group, the National Association for the Advancement of White People.

After some unsuccessful political runs — including for president as a Democrat in 1988 — Duke became a Republican and won a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1989. He disavowed the KKK and tried to avoid overtly racist rhetoric, but he focused his campaign on racially charged issues such as affirmative action, welfare, and school busing. He ran unsuccessfully for US Senate the following year.

Duke's high-water mark in politics was his 1991 run for governor of Louisiana, when he finished second overall in the statewide nonpartisan primary with 31.7 percent of the vote — narrowly behind former Governor Edwin Edwards (D), and ahead of incumbent governor Buddy Roemer (R).

In Louisiana, the top two primary finishers move on to the general election if no candidate gets above 50 percent. So that year, the runoff pitted Duke as the sole Republican candidate against Edwards. Though Edwards was widely (and accurately) believed to be corrupt, many Republicans, including incumbent governor Buddy Roemer, endorsed him due to Duke's racism. In the end, Duke lost, winning 38.8 percent of the vote — but still, he got 38.8 percent of the vote.

Since then, Duke has receded from the political scene, for the most part. Leading Republican figures have repeatedly disavowed him and distanced themselves from him — for instance, RNC chairman Jim Nicholson said in 1998, "There is no room in the party of Lincoln for a Klansman like David Duke." He also served prison time for mail and tax fraud charges, after he used money raised from supporters for gambling and personal investment.

This all goes to show that Duke was a major political force in Louisiana, which helps explain the significance of Scalise speaking at one of his events, but also is a reminder that the shadow of racist white supremacism hangs over Louisiana politics.

In an interview with the Post's Robert Costa, Duke said that he has "never had a relationship" with Scalise, and added, "I didn't get the impression that he was one of us." It was instead Duke's longtime political adviser, Kenny Knight, who was neighbors with Scalise and invited him to speak at the EURO conference. Duke was not present.

5) What's Scalise's explanation?

Scalise July 2014 presser

Scalise at a press conference in July 2014. (Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call Group / Getty)

Scalise said Monday that he didn't know EURO was a hate group at the time: "For anyone to suggest that I was involved with a group like that is insulting and ludicrous," he told Julia O'Donoghue of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

He said that, that year, he was speaking to many groups about his opposition to a tax plan. "I was asked to speak all around the New Orleans region. I would go and speak about how this tax plan was bad. I didn't know who all of these groups were and I detest any kind of hate group," he said. "I didn't have a big staff to vet organizations either."

Kenny Knight, Duke's political adviser and the person who invited Scalise, gave a similar account in a Tuesday interview with Costa. "Steve knew who I was, but I don’t think he held it against me," he said. "He agreed [to speak at the event], believing it was going to be neighbors, friends, and family. He saw me not as David Duke’s guy, but as the president of our civic association." Knight says that Scalise "came in early on the first day of EURO, spoke for about 15 minutes, and he left," and told Costa that Scalise "didn't hear David speak remotely to the crowd."

But later on Tuesday, Knight offered a different story, claiming Scalise didn't speak to EURO at all, but rather a civic association that was meeting on the same day and in the same hotel, a meeting also organized by Knight — and that some EURO members just happened to wander over and see it. "Some of the EURO members who came from out of town came to the hospitality room and sat in the audience," Knight told Michael Bender of Bloomberg News. "Maybe a handful of the 25 people or so in the room were from EURO. The rest were all people from the neighborhood."

6) What's the reaction?

Boehner and Scalise

Boehner and Scalise, in June 2014. (Melina Mara / Washington Post / Getty)

Some conservative pundits have condemned Scalise, and even called for him to step down. "How the hell does somebody show up at a David Duke organized event in 2002 and claim ignorance?" wrote Erick Erickson of Redstate. Former Bush aide Peter Wehner tweeted, "Rep Scalise should resign his leadership post. The party of Lincoln shouldn't have as its #3 a keynoter at a white supremacist convention."

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, however, Speaker John Boehner said that Scalise had acknowledged his mistake, and that "he has my full confidence as our Whip." Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy issued a similar statement, adding, "I've known him as a friend for many years and I know that he does not share the beliefs of that organization."

Meanwhile, several Democrats have criticized Scalise. A spokesperson for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the news was "deeply troubling" but criticized overall GOP policies rather than calling on Scalise to resign.

In Louisiana, though, Scalise has gotten support. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D), the only African-American (and Democrat) in Louisiana's US House delegation, defended Scalise. "I don't think Steve Scalise has a racist bone in his body," Richmond said. "Steve and I have worked on issues that benefit poor people, black people, white people, Jewish people. I know his character."

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) also spoke out in Scalise's defense, writing in a statement, "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."

Update: This post was updated to include a new version of events offered by Kenny Knight to Michael Bender of Bloomberg News.

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