The Long Tail of David Duke's Old Legislation

How Republican was David Duke in his one elected office?

Before the bells tolled on 2014, the New York Times got in one last politics story designed to raise conservatives' blood pressure. Jeremy Alford's piece began with the slam-dunk headline "Much of David Duke’s ’91 Campaign Is Now in Louisiana Mainstream" and the argument that "Mr. Duke remains a window into some of the murkier currents in the state’s politics where Republicans have sought and eventually won Mr. Duke’s voters, while turning their back on him."

The window was frustratingly opaque. Alford mentioned that Duke "filed nine bills, including measures implementing stricter guidelines for residents of public housing, repealing affirmative action programs and eliminating minority set-asides," and compared Duke's idea of "forcing welfare recipients to take birth control" to the "near-perennial attempts by members of the Louisiana Legislature to give welfare recipients drug tests." He added that Duke "focused on anti-big government and anti-tax mantras that preceded the Tea Party movement," and that a reporter who interviewed rising (now embattled) Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise told her he was "like David Duke without the baggage."

A conservative reader would still be woozy with deja vu. As soon as Duke burst into electoral politics, liberal columnists called him a byproduct of the contemporary GOP. Duke won his special election for a legislative seat just months after George H.W. Bush won the presidency. Plenty of commentators drew a line from Lee Atwater's campaign for Bush, and the focus on crime committed by black recidivists, right back to Duke. "For the GOP the chickens have come home to roost," wrote Richard Cohen in the Washington Post in February 1989. "Duke's triumph reminds us that political rhetoric does matter, that Bush's smarmy presidential campaign (run, in part, by Atwater) did indeed send a message." The Post later gave Susan Estrich, Mike Dukakis's defeated campaign manager, nearly 4,000 words to condemn the Atwater/Bush strategy, linking it directly to Duke, writing that the "fire his campaign ignited still rages."  

Bush had already denounced Duke, as had Atwater. "His record is one of racism and bigotry," said Bush at a press conference after the win. But Republicans couldn't stop Duke from courting the media; he was probably the most-covered freshman state representative in history. Duke focused on legislation that would have stiffened criminal sentences on people living in public housing, and he tried to co-opt an anti-tax campaign building in the state, but he got the most attention for two message bills that he claimed had majority support. 

  • Drug-testing for welfare recipients. Duke introduced a bill that would required people on the dole to prove they were drug-free, every year. ''Why in the world should hard-working people finance dabbling in cocaine or other hard drugs?" Duke asked UPI in April 1989. "Just as people apply for welfare, or renew their welfare, you could have a very simple drug test. A urinalysis. Very clean, very simple. It would help clean out some of the projects, the public housing." To guard against bias claims, Duke introduced a companion bill that would required the same sort of drug tests for people applying for driver's licenses. Both ideas were killed in the legislature.
  • Paying welfare recipients not to have babies. On the trail and in the legislature, Duke argued for changing welfare rules to discourage beneficiaries from having kids. He suggested a racheting-up of benefits for people who did not get pregnant, everything from money to priority selection for public housing. "If they are persistent in having illegitimate children, we need some reverse incentives." Duke told reporter Tom Edsall in April 1989, "While they are getting welfare their benefits would not be appreciably increased [with additional children]." The bill didn't go anywhere, and Duke possibly under-estimated how easy it was for critics to compare the incentives plan to the forced sterilization favored by Duke's National Association for the Advancement of White People.
  • Ending affirmative action. Duke came fairly close to a full vote on a bill that would have ended all "minority set-asides" in Louisiana. He got it through committee, but it was tabled in a 44-41 vote—led by Democratic Representative Mitch Landrieu, the young future mayor of New Orleans. (At the time, Democrats had a supermajority in the state House of Representatives.) ''The public is going to know if you voted for tabling this bill, you're against equal rights for everybody in this state," Duke warned. A year later, after the bill was watered down by amendments, it passed the House. "The representatives are hearing the footsteps of their constituents around the state on this issue," he said. But it didn't win final passage.

Duke didn't "achieve" much else. Less than a year after he won his legislative seat, he challenged Democratic Senator Bennett Johnston, losing by just 10 points. A year later, he lost his infamous gubernatorial campaign. He jumped right into the 1992 presidential primaries, where, to his surprise, the insurgent campaign of Pat Buchanan rendered him irrelevant. (Duke's best showing was 11 percent of the vote in Mississippi's primary, good enough for third place.) By 1994, Duke was out of the legislature, and would never win another election.

Scalise, who won his state House seat in 1995, never served alongside Duke. As Alford and others have reported, the Louisiana GOP slowly became the state's natural majority party, tacking right but rejecting the lumpen racism of Duke. Since last year, it's welcomed (and heavily promoted) a party-switching black senator, Elbert Guillory.

That was why Duke's unexpected news cycle cameo angered Republicans so much. For the better part of two years, in the wake of the Dukakis loss, Democrats linked every Republican proposal on crime or race to David Duke. It hardly mattered that Louisiana Republicans had been introducing welfare reform bills since the 1970s; when Duke arrived, welfare reform became his cause. Many elections and several Republican re-brandings later, Republicans thought they were rid of the guy and his associations.

What's next? As Democrats gird for battle to protect the president's immigration executive orders, they might remember how Duke tried to lead the restrictionist cause in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1977, as the young leader of the Ku Klux Klan, Duke led a "Klan border watch" that was largely forgotten until being echoed by the Minutemen movement of the mid-2000s. In 1999, when Duke made one more failed run for office—a seat in Congress—he limned his announcement speech with warnings about immigration.

"The government also discriminates against white people in legal immigration policies as well as failing to stem the tide of massive, non-white illegal immigration," he said. "Immigration combined with taxpayer-subsidized welfare birthrates will result in European-Americans becoming a minority in the nation our own forefathers created."

Democrats are in worse shape now then they were in 1989. Maybe they won't convince any voters by linking current Republican policies and figures to the hard-right racism of the Duke campaigns. They're at least making Republicans nervous.