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National: David Duke reverts to unabashed racism in Congress run

Saturday, May 01, 1999

By Joshua Benton, Block News Alliance

AMITE, La. -- There's a gleam in David Duke's eyes, a glint of pure joy.

He's talking about one of his favorite topics: black people, and the evils he says they do.

And he has an audience here at the Amite Fire Hall: 70 working-class white folk who want blame for their problems put somewhere.

"They're not like you," he says, his voice rising. "They're not of your values! Do you want your children to be in a school where rap music is the top music? We're losing our right to exist!"

One woman in the audience complains that her child's kindergarten class is mostly black. Duke says the worst will be in a few years, in high school.

America's most famous racist and ex-Klansman is running for Congress in today's primary, and on this night, in this backwoods town, he isn't holding anything back. Where he once used code words to hide his racism, such as "welfare" or "crime," he's being open now.

"I don't agree with slavery," he offers. "It was the worst mistake we ever made -- not just for them, but for us, in the long run!" His smile is wide. "They've benefited from being in this country! You think things are better back in Africa? They're a lot better off because we brought them here."

That sort of openness is a far cry from the Duke of a few years ago, the Duke who shed his Klan robes for business suits, who spent thousands on plastic surgery, who stopped calling Jews children of Satan in public.

The old way almost worked. Duke, 48, came close to becoming Louisiana's governor and senator. He got the majority of the state's white voters to back him -- twice. He became a phenomenon, a mark of shame for the state.

Now, years later, he's not pretending anymore.

"He's made a clear decision to try to change the way white people think instead of trying to get their vote," said Dr. Lance Hill, an academic who has studied Duke for about 25 years. "He couldn't care less about being popular now. He wants to lay the groundwork for a Nazi revolution."

Hill, executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research in New Orleans, thinks he knows why Duke is so happy at campaign rallies today.

"There's got to be a lot of pain in holding back what you really feel for all that time," he says. "It has to be a huge relief not to have to hide it anymore."

Duke grew up in New Orleans and started out with Nazi groups, with names such as the National Socialist White People's Party and the White Youth Alliance. He marched around in storm trooper outfits and hung swastika flags in his college dorm rooms.

Eventually, he moved from Nazi groups to the Klan, using his leadership abilities to become grand wizard. In 1980, he quit the Klan to form the National Association for the Advancement of White People, a group he led until 1992.

In 1989, when a state representative in Metairie left his post for a judgeship, a special election was called. Duke entered. He ran as a Republican and shocked the world when he came out on top by 227 votes.

Within months, he had announced his candidacy for the 1990 U.S. Senate race, in which he scored 44 percent of the vote against a three-term Democratic incumbent. Louisiana's 30 percent black population prevented Duke from reaching the U.S. Senate.

He didn't give up. In 1991 he ran for governor and pulled a major upset, besting both the incumbent and the Republican nominee to make it into a runoff against former Gov. Edwin Edwards.

That was the height of Duke's political career. He had just dethroned the incumbent governor and finished just two points behind Edwards. News media descended on Louisiana to cover one of the century's most outlandish races: an ex-Klansman and Nazi, running against a womanizing ex-governor indicted on corruption charges.

Bumper stickers began to appear: "Vote for the Crook; It's important." Edwards won in a landslide.

Duke leaped back into the fray in December when Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., resigned after an adultery scandal. Livingston, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, had been tapped to be the next speaker of the House when Hustler publisher Larry Flynt uncovered tales of adulteries in the congressman's past.

Duke made his announcement at a meeting of the National Alliance, which the Anti-Defamation League says is one of the most powerful anti-Semitic groups in the country.

The National Alliance is a group headed by William Pierce, the author of "The Turner Diaries," a fictional book that authorities say inspired Timothy McVeigh to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Pierce's 1978 novel describes a future racial war in which terrorists use a truck bomb to blow up a federal building in a Midwest city. In 1989, Duke sold copies of the book out of his state legislative office.

Along with Duke, voters will be able to choose from: a Rhodes scholar state representative; the owner of New Orleans' minor-league baseball team; a 33-year-old political rookie running on the fact that he's still a virgin ("That ought to tell you something about my integrity"); a woman named Dr. Monica Monica; a 6-foot 9-inch, 280-pound state representative; and a 70-year-old former governor who hasn't won a race in 20 years.

Louisiana's 1st District is made up mostly of suburban New Orleans. It's overwhelmingly white and conservative, but it still manages to have some ideological and economic diversity: from the old-money Republicans of Metairie, to the new-money subdivisions of Lake Pontchartrain's north shore, to the working-class Reagan Democrats of Tangipahoa Parish.

Polls have been notoriously unkind to Duke. In past elections, voters have been unwilling to admit their Duke support to pollsters. In the 1990 Senate race, polls just before the election put his support in the low 20s, yet he won 44 percent of the vote.

Pollsters have typically doubled Duke's stated support to get an idea what his "shadow" vote might be. Campaign scuttlebutt has it that at least one candidate's internal poll has put Duke at 10 percent. That might mean that 20 percent is a possibility. And if that is the case, in a nine-candidate field, there is a chance he could sneak into a runoff with former Gov. David Treen.

And if that were to happen, international news media would no doubt descend on New Orleans one more time to write about Louisiana politics.



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