By Emma Dumain, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)
WASHINGTON — Democrat Cedric L. Richmond’s defense of Steve Scalise after revelations the Republican majority whip spoke to a white supremacist group in 2002 raised eyebrows in Washington — especially among other members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
But the two Louisiana congressmen — one a black progressive, the other a white conservative — have a relationship that goes back 14 years, to their early days as friendly adversaries in the state Legislature.
“In between Scalise and Richmond there’s kind of a yin and a yang,” fellow Louisiana Rep. John Fleming, a Republican, told CQ Roll Call recently.
Long before December’s revelations about Scalise, the two lawmakers served together for nearly eight years in the Louisiana statehouse.
The Democrat from New Orleans and the Republican from the city’s suburbs didn’t agree on raising the minimum wage or revisiting the number of days a suspect can remain incarcerated before formal charges are made.
Still, over time, a friendship developed.
“We would fight during the day in the Legislature and then in the evening we would go play basketball and we would have drinks together,” Richmond recalled last summer in an interview with the Baton-Rouge Advocate.
Publicly, tensions could look ugly. In 2007, Richmond was peeved that Scalise hadn’t given him a heads-up before going to the media to announce plans to explore impeachment proceedings against a local elected official.
“Maybe it’s because he’s running for Congress,” Richmond said of Scalise at the time.
Scalise was elected to Congress in 2008, and Richmond followed two years later, crashing the then-all-GOP Louisiana House delegation with his ouster of moderate Republican Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao.
After their years in Baton Rouge, Richmond and Scalise picked up where they left off, recalling the mutual respect and personal fondness they cultivated back in Louisiana outside of the requisite partisan bickering.
At the 2011 State of the Union address immediately following the near-fatal shooting of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), Scalise and Richmond chose one another as bipartisan seating companions.
On the precipice of Richmond’s first Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game — a yearly tradition he would come to dominate — the former college athlete said he was eager to take on his old friend, a high school wrestler.
“We have neighboring districts, and we served in the Legislature together, so we’re pretty competitive,” Richmond said. “I can’t wait to get a chance to pitch against Steve.” (In a subsequent baseball game, Scalise got the better of Richmond, to his sheer delight.)
The two men soon discovered working together on Capitol Hill was, in some ways, easier than opposing each other in Baton Rouge. Both shared a commitment to hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. Since 2011, they have jointly sponsored amendments and standalone bills to provide flood protection and aid Gulf Coast recovery post-Hurricane Katrina, in many cases enjoying bipartisan legislative successes.
When Scalise was named the majority whip in June over two Republican rivals, Richmond was among those who cheered the professional milestone. And when Scalise was scrambling in December to explain why he accepted the invitation to speak to a group founded by David Duke, Richmond helpfully weighed in: “I don’t think Steve Scalise has a racist bone in his body.”
Today, even in the aftermath of controversy, Scalise and Richmond find common ground as members of a close-knit delegation. The six House lawmakers have resumed a long-dormant practice of holding monthly meetings to catch up and talk shop, Fleming said, adding that the get-togethers are now held in the more luxurious setting of Scalise’s leadership digs where the whip even gives them “a hot breakfast.”
Fleming suggested that perhaps there was something about the culture of the Louisiana congressional delegation, the civility within its fabric when it came to displaying mutual respect.
“Even when Senator (Mary L.) Landrieu was in our delegation, we always gave her the greatest respect, and the only woman in our delegation,” Fleming added of the Democrat who lost last fall to his former House colleague, Republican Bill Cassidy.
The delegation’s comity appears to go both ways. Richmond not only backed Scalise as he withstood criticism, but in spring 2014 found himself in the corner of another embattled Louisiana Republican: then-Rep. Vance McAllister, who was in trouble for being caught on camera kissing a woman who was not his wife.
“This is the part of the job I hate. The two parties have taken far too much joy in other people’s pain,” Richmond said at the time. “I got to know Vance and his wife, and when something like this happens, you know there is a lot of pain.”
At the Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game a few months later, Richmond, a hard-throwing fast-baller, took some speed off the ball when McAllister came to the plate.
Neither Scalise nor Richmond wanted to speak to CQ Roll Call for this story, though news outlets have reported that Scalise has let Richmond know how much he appreciates his efforts to calm the waters of the controversy.
Sources add, however, that the gratitude, almost 15 years in the making, could run even deeper than that.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr