Whip Scalise Commemorated Bloody Sunday, but Took No Action to Restore the Voting Rights Act

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House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R. La., has been better known for associations with white supremacist groups and hostility to civil rights issues than as a champion for voting rights. Will his recent commemoration of Bloody Sunday signal a turn for the House’s third highest ranking official?

Scalise’s trip to Selma was striking because in recent years he’s found himself in hot water over a speech he once delivered to the European American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), a white supremacist, anti-Semitic, and neo-Nazi organization classified as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

After a sustained bout of public pressure and media scrutiny, Scalise issued a statement calling his attendance there a “mistake,” but his consistent record of hostility toward civil rights issues as a one-time Louisiana state legislator raised concerns among several civil rights leaders, as outlined in a letter from Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League.

“You voted against making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a state holiday — one of just three state representatives to do so, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And in 2004, two years after the EURO conference where you spoke, you were one of six to vote against the holiday,” Henderson and Morial wrote in January 2015. “You apparently took a similar position involving the naming of a U.S. Post Office for Louisiana civil rights icon, the Honorable Lionel Collins, a pioneering civil rights lawyer and the first African-American judge in Jefferson Parish, La.”

Scalise agreed to meet with the two civil rights leaders a month later, where they urged him to cosponsor a bill to restore the VRA, to ask House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte to hold a hearing on the bill, and to help arrange a meeting between them and House Republican leadership regarding the legislation. Scalise failed to act on any of their requests and on August 6, 2015 — the 50th anniversary of the VRA — Henderson and Morial wrote to Scalise for a third time to express their profound disappointment.

“Your past actions have cast you as part of the problem. We invited you to join our efforts to become part of the solution,” Henderson and Morial wrote. Scalise ultimately took no action. That’s why his participation in the Selma commemoration stood out to civil rights advocates in attendance, like Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Scalise’s presence was conspicuous because — even after calling his 2002 speech a mistake — he has failed for more than a year now to work with civil rights leaders and move voting rights forward.

 

While Scalise’s trip to Selma this year represents a welcome symbolic gesture, commemorating the events of 1965 is no replacement for legislating in 2016 to ensure equal access to the ballot box. As part of House leadership, Scalise has a responsibility to serve not only the constituents in his district, but also the broader national constituency.

Scalise should join House Speaker Paul Ryan in supporting a VRA restoration, and he should take the additional steps of actually cosponsoring a bill and calling on Goodlatte to hold a hearing on it. Before this year’s presidential election — the first in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA — there’s still time for him to redeem his reputation and take meaningful action.