As the former Deputy Chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, I am very aware of a narrative that haunts Republicans more than many would like to admit. Traveling across Minnesota, I heard numerous times how Republicans were viewed as the party for whites, with many expressing their opinion how the party had no broad appeal to minority groups.
It was a frustrating message to hear and while I knew the talking points to push back, I understood the racial composition of Republican activists in Minnesota. It was clear then that the party was struggling to win the support of minority groups, both locally and nationally.
For Republicans, outreach to minority groups is continually an uphill battle. Earlier this week it was reported Republicans were attempting another effort to build a bigger political tent that could have a long-term appeal to minorities. But a day later, the reason Republicans have a substantive image problem with minority groups became so clear.
Steve Scalise, the Majority Whip and the No. 3 Republican in the House of Representatives, admitted he addressed a gathering of white supremacists in 2002 when he was serving in the Louisiana Legislature.
Yesterday, Scalise said his appearance at the 2002 Louisiana convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (called EURO) was "a mistake..." adding the he did not support "the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold." EURO was founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader and Republican legislator David Duke.
Despite acknowledging he spoke at a meeting of white supremacists, Scalise has given no indication that he will step away from his prominent position with House Republicans. Scalise's decision to stay in his leadership role, with the backing of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner, is almost as foolish as Scalise trying to claim he did not know he was speaking to a white supremacist organization.
If the general manager of the Iowa Cubs, a AAA minor league baseball team, has the common sense to move his team from staying at the same hotel in Louisiana where EURO's convention was being held, we should expect the same good judgment from Scalise.
But unfortunately for Republicans, it appears the general manager of a minor league baseball team had a better understanding of race relations than a top Republican leader in Congress did. If Republicans continue to stand with Scalise, they should no longer be confused as to why the party is continually being rejected overwhelming by minority groups at the polls.
The only appropriate response for Republicans in the House of Representatives to news of Scalise speaking to white supremacists in 2002 is to remove him from his leadership role. But for Republicans, they played the wrong card and are sticking with Scalise. It is a mistake, one that makes it even more difficult for Republicans to change the unfavorable narrative about the party and race.
When the subject turns to race and policies and which party best represents the interests of minorities, the response Republicans often start with is mentioning that it was a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It was then a Republican controlled Congress that later passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which abolished slavery. The first African American to serve as governor of a U.S. State was a Republican, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, who served as Governor of Louisiana.
It was another Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957. It was also Eisenhower who sent federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas to ensure nine African American students were allowed to enroll at Little Rock Central School. The students were being blocked from enrolling by the Arkansas National Guard who were under orders from Governor Orval Eugene Faubus, a Democrat.
Republicans are quick to mention Lincoln, but they forget that another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, once said during his campaign for governor of California in 1966 that "if an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so."
The defenders of Scalise were quick to mention Democrat Robert Byrd, who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s and later served in the U.S. Senate for 51 years. Byrd, who died in 2010, repeatedly apologized and attempted to explain his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. But by using Byrd, who twice served as the Senate Majority Leader, to combat the attacks on Scalise, Republicans only validated the criticism.
It does not aid Republicans' efforts to change the narrative against them on race to compare Scalise to a Democrat who endured repeated criticism from Republicans for his past membership in the Ku Klux Klan.
It is the Republicans that have helped create the narrative which undermines their efforts for any meaningful minority outreach. It is Republicans like Scalise and those who choose to stand with him who are making it so difficult to change the narrative.
It is not wrong for Republicans to promote their work in championing civil rights legislation and racial equality. But even with such a strong history of advocating for minority groups, Republicans can and should be criticized for allowing Scalise to remain in his leadership position. All Republicans, including members of Congress from Minnesota, should understand the damage of allowing Scalise to remain in his leadership role could have on the Republican Party's ability to appeal to minorities.
Allowing a Republican who previously courted the support of white supremacists to now serve in leadership capacity in the U.S. House of Representatives is wrong. Scalise is not apologizing for his attendance at a white supremacist meeting because he suddenly became self-aware that it was wrong. He is apologizing because he was forced to acknowledge his connection to Duke and white supremacists.
Scalise's political path to Congress, which included speaking to racists, should have been examined before he was elected House Majority Whip. Republicans cannot go back in time, but they can prevent the problem from getting worse. There is no winning political strategy or any compelling benefit to Republicans by elevating Scalise's visibility in Congress.
For Republicans, now is the time to send a clear and strong message to all Americans about race. By allowing Scalise to remain in his leadership role, Republicans are rewarding outreach to racists.
It took over a decade for Scalise to finally admit attending a meeting of white supremacists was a mistake. By allowing Scalise to continue to serve in his leadership role, Republicans will cause even more damage to their image with minority groups and perpetuate a damning narrative that Republicans cannot seem to shake.
Republicans could have strong role in addressing the issues involving race which are dominating headlines and triggering protest across the country. But with Scalise in his role, Republicans lose the credibility to lead. He should go and it should be Republicans who demand it.
UPDATE: It is now being reported that an aide to David Duke has changed his previous statements and is now claiming Scalise did not speak at EURO's convention in 2002. Scalise said yesterday that he did speak to the group and his office has not released a new statement retracting his comments from yesterday. I'll be following this issue today and will update this post with any new developments.