Updated at 2:14 p.m. ET
Rep. Steve Scalise, the recently elected House majority whip, has acknowledged that he spoke at a gathering of white supremacists more than a decade ago, calling it “a mistake” that he regrets.
“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, R-La., 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, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold.”
The remarks were the first acknowledgment by the newly elected House majority whip of his presence at the gathering. He previously said he didn’t remember speaking before a convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization in 2002. But, if he did, he said, he was not aware of the kind of positions the group took.
House Speaker John Boehner, in a statement, defended Scalise.
“More than a decade ago, Representative Scalise made an error in judgment, and he was right to acknowledge it was wrong and inappropriate,” Boehner said in a statement.
Boehner said Scalise has his full confidence as the GOP whip.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which classifies EURO as a white nationalist group, the organization was founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
In an interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Scalise, whose position makes him the third highest-ranking Republican in the House, said that at the time of his speech, he had no idea the group was associated with Duke, and had he known, he never would have appeared before them.
Scalise said that at the time, he was campaigning against the Stelly tax plan, which increased income tax in Louisiana.
He told the Times-Picayune:
“I don’t have any records from back in 2002, but when people called and asked me to speak to groups, I went and spoke to groups. It was myself and [former state Sen.] James David Cain who were opposed to the Stelly tax plan.
“I was the only legislator from the New Orleans area who was opposed to the plan publicly, so I was asked to speak all around the New Orleans region. I would go and speak about how this tax plan was bad.”
At the time, Scalise said, he didn’t have a scheduler or the benefit of Google.
He went on:
“If I knew today what they were about, I wouldn’t go. My staff, they are able to vet organizations. We turn down requests from organizations we don’t approve of.
“Now, I still go speak to people who don’t think like me. I’ll go speak to liberal groups a lot. But a group like this? I would not go to speak to. They don’t share my values.
“You can talk to [New Orleans U.S. Rep.] Cedric Richmond. … He knows what kind of person I am.
“It’s insulting and offensive for anybody to insinuate that I would affiliate with a group like that.”
The Washington Post spoke to David Duke on Monday night. He said Scalise was asked to speak by “two of Duke’s longtime associates.”
The Post adds:
“Scalise ‘says he didn’t realize what the conference was. I don’t know if he did or did not,’ Duke said. He also said Scalise should not be forced to resign, saying Scalise was merely taking an opportunity to meet with ‘constituents.’
” ‘What politician would ever pass up an opportunity to talk to his constituents?’ Duke said. ‘It sounds like they are just playing politics.’ ”
It’s worth noting that in 1999, Scalise was interviewed by Roll Call about the possibility that Duke would run for a congressional seat.