Rep. Steve Scalise has a supporter in Kenny Knight, the white nationalist who invited the House Republican to speak at a Best Western Hotel in Metairie, Louisiana, in 2002—the site of a racist conference.
“Poor Steve Scalise is getting a bad rap,” Knight, a long-time aide to former KKK leader David Duke, told The Daily Beast. “I don’t think Steve Scalise would come anywhere near a white hate group.”
It’s a bit of an odd statement, since Knight and his cohorts don’t consider their outfits to be hate groups, despite their stridently racist rhetoric.
The controversy over Scalise’s attendance at the conference now threatens to engulf the opening days of the next Congress. While House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday afternoon that he maintained his “full confidence” in Scalise, many in Washington believe that the newly minted House Republican Whip could be in danger of losing his spot as the third-ranking GOP representative.
Scalise conceded Tuesday that he had spoken before the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), a group associated with neo-Nazis and racial prejudice, but rejected its “hateful bigotry.”
“Twelve years ago, I spoke to many different Louisiana groups as a state representative, trying to build support for legislation that focused on cutting wasteful state spending, eliminating government corruption, and stopping tax hikes,” Scalise said in a statement. “One of the many groups that I spoke to regarding this critical legislation was a group whose views I wholeheartedly condemn. It was a mistake I regret.
Knight, a four-time campaign manager for Duke, told The Daily Beast that “Steve Scalise is innocent” and a “good man for the people” who wasn’t prejudiced. “I am going to reach out to Steve Scalise and apologize to him, [and tell him], ‘You are being crucified and you did nothing wrong. You were there at my invitation to discuss issues with your constituents.’”
Knight lived down the street from Scalise, and had met him a handful of times at Republican Party events. He was active in local GOP politics at the time, and said he invited Scalise to speak at his local civic association meeting before, not during the EURO conference. But this may be a distinction without much of a difference—especially since Scalise admitted speaking before EURO.
In Knight’s telling, he arranged the logistics of the 2002 EURO conference at the Best Western as a favor to avowed racist David Duke, who was living in Russia at the time. Since he had already booked a hospitality suite, he invited Scalise to speak to the Jefferson Heights Civic Association in the morning, before the EURO conference was to start.
Scalise spoke about taxes and government slush funds for a mere 15 minutes, Knight said. Scalise appeared in between a representative of the American Red Cross, who spoke about CPR, and a representative of the local sheriff’s department, who spoke about setting up a local Crime Watch group.
Knight’s version of events conflicts with a contemporary accounting of the conference on Stormfront, the white nationalist website, which says that the two day EURO conference was “productive” in part due to Scalise’s address.
Knight said between 25 and 30 people attended Scalise’s speech, three-quarters of whom were members of the Jefferson Heights Civic Association, and a quarter of whom were attending the EURO conference.
“The truth is that we used that room early on in the day to sponsor a town hall meeting between Steve Scalise and his constituents,” Knight said. “It was totally separate from the EURO conference… there were a handful of people who came to town early, who sat and listened to what [Scalise] had to say.”
When Scalise addressed the crowd, Knight insisted, there were no banners, no paraphernalia that suggested a white nationalism conference. (For what it’s worth, Knight also insists EURO is not a “hate group,” but a “group of educated, white folks who were worried about the heritage of their race.”)
Heidi Beirich, The Director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, researched EURO extensively in the years after the event in question. In 2004 and 2005, Beirich told the Beast, EURO events were replete with Confederate flags and white nationalist slogans (she could not speak for 2002).
Knight said that he had forgotten about the 2002 event until three weeks ago, when he met David Duke for a double date at the restaurant Rips on the Lake in Mandeville, Louisiana. Over dinner, the Knight had mentioned that Scalise had spoken before the EURO event.
Knight is furious with the media coverage about Scalise. He reserved particular ire for the Washington Post’s Robert Costa, saying he was going to “bust [Costa’s] head open” for supposedly misquoting him.
For Republicans who are trying to expand the party to include more minority voters, the Scalise controversy is just the latest in a series of events that illustrate the GOP’s problems with minority efforts.
“When it comes to expanding the party into communities of color, and you find yourself… on the defensive on actions, comments and behaviors about members of your party,” said Michael Steele, an African American and former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “[These actions] call into question not only their judgment but how true the effort is to expanding into those communities.”
Steele said he had worked with Scalise in the past without incident, and friends of Scalise are surprised that he has been embroiled in this controversy.
“I know that if Steve Scalise walked into a room and David Duke or someone like him were in there, he’d walk out,” said Brian Trascher, a Louisiana government relations consultant who has been friends with Scalise for more than 20 years.