House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who publicly expressed regret for the "mistake" of addressing a white-supremacist organization in 2002 as a Louisiana state legislator, has found a solid ally as he seeks to rebuild his reputation and repair relations with the black community.
"I thought it was a good idea so people would understand [his] rationale and get a chance to interact," Democrat Rep. Cedric Richmond, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), told The Hill
"I think Steve just wanted to get his bearings, then take a deep breath and now [begin his] outreach and meeting with people."
Richmond says he has approached Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn of South Carolina and CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield, D-North Carolina, about meeting with Scalise, and he also has raised the possibility of arranging discussions.
In December, it was reported that Scalise as a state senator in 2002 had spoken at a conference hosted by the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, a group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
In the immediate aftermath, Richmond was one of the few Democratic or black members of Congress to defend Scalise's character.
"I don't think Steve Scalise has a racist bone in his body. Steve and I have worked on issues that benefit poor people, black people, white people, Jewish people. I know his character," Richmond told the New Orleans Times-Picayune
The Louisiana Democrat also played a crucial role in arranging a February meeting with National Urban League President Marc Morial and Wade Henderson, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Richmond's public support for the House Republican leader has been questioned by some colleagues who believe politics motivated his actions.
"People are deferring to Cedric, thinking they can rely on Cedric's good judgment, and in this case I don't think we can. 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," a CBC lawmaker told The Hill.
"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," added the lawmaker.
In a statement released this week, Henderson confirmed that he and Morial would meet to discuss "pressing civil rights and human rights issues" with Scalise next month.
"Rep. Scalise is now a member of congressional leadership with a responsibility to govern with all Americans in mind. We look forward to a fruitful discussion of some of the most pressing civil and human rights issues of the day like the restoration of the Voting Rights Act, a strong education reauthorization, and reform of our criminal justice system," Henderson said, according to the Times-Picayune
Henderson and Morial sent Scalise a letter on Jan. 6 seeking an opportunity to move beyond the "serious and legitimate concerns"
that were raised by reports of his 2002 speech.
Richmond has said Scalise needs to show a willingness to hear the CBC's concerns and to work on those issues to make heal wounds opened in December.
The CBC, however, also sees the scandal as leverage in achieving those legislative goals, reports Roll Call
"Obviously, at this point, the question is how can we use these missteps to create a relationship with [Scalise] that can benefit our communities going forward. And the jury is still out on that," Butterfield told Roll Call recently.
Some of Butterfield's colleagues in the CBC share his wait-and-see attitude.
"I thought it would be a good gesture on his part,'' said Democrat Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who issued an invitation to Scalise to address the group to explain the events surrounding the conference, as well as to elicit his support for legislation they view as important to the black community, reports USA Today
This week, Buzzfeed reported
that Duke is considering running against Scalise in the next election.
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