Outsider Duke still a player

Former leader of Klan injects raucous element into ho-hum La. election

June 27, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MANDEVILLE, La. -- Voters rejected him in all but one of his nine campaigns for public office. His own party has largely disowned him. And some 26 watery miles over Lake Pontchartrain from here, a federal grand jury in New Orleans is investigating him.

But on this recent afternoon, David Duke, the unrepentant one-time Ku Klux Klan leader, seems not to have a care in the world. Until, that is, the waitress brings him a plate of chicken teriyaki with brown rice.

"I'm supposed to get white," Duke tells her.

Of course he is.

Color colors everything for Duke, who has become even more outspoken about his views on white supremacy and racial separatism in recent years than when he first gained national attention in 1989 -- the year he was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives.

He has run almost continually since then -- for governor, congressman, senator, even president -- failing every time but somehow still managing to matter.

Here in his home state, where voters will pick a governor this fall, Duke is not a candidate, but he is a factor. Initially shaping up as a ho-hum affair in which the incumbent, Republican Mike Foster, was expected to cruise to re-election, the race has turned into the kind of raucous spectator sport that Louisianians have come to expect of their elective politics.

Duke, it emerged last month from the grand jury investigating him, had sold Foster a list of his supporters for $150,000. While the purchase of lists is common in campaigns, this transaction, conducted secretly and at a price considerably higher than the market for such things, has raised suspicions over what was really for sale. The reigning assumption, which both deny, is that Foster was buying Duke's endorsement and agreement not to run for governor himself.

Foster has since been hounded by questions about his association with Duke: Why didn't he report the purchase on his campaign finance forms? Why was it done covertly through a third party? Why, now that the news is out, does he refuse to denounce Duke and what he represents?

Foster's approval rating has dropped since the revelations but only slightly: from 81 percent to 78 percent, according to one poll. Most of the drop-off has been among blacks, the poll showed.

An odd role

As for Duke, although he has had to file amended tax returns and pay additional taxes for failing to report all of the income from selling his list, the brouhaha may help rather than hurt his future, observers say.

"It shows that he's still a player," says Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University. "What David Duke cannot be is irrelevant."

Duke's role in state and national politics remains an odd one: He can't get elected, yet he won't go away. He sometimes does quite well. In a crowded field this spring, he managed to come in third, with 19 percent of the vote, in a special election to fill a congressional vacancy.

He is his own cottage industry, selling newsletters, speaking to any group that will have him and, since the end of last year, pushing his self-published autobiography, "My Awakening."

In mold of Jesse Jackson

Ironically, when he describes his role in public life, the comparison is to a black man: Duke sees himself as the Rev. Jesse Jackson for white Americans.

"I speak out for my cause the way he speaks out for his," Duke says.

But not all causes are equal, he adds. Every racial and ethnic group but what Duke calls European-Americans is allowed and even encouraged to promote and celebrate its culture and goals, he says.

"But if I push a European-American agenda, I'm evil," he says. "I'm politically incorrect."

It's more than that, his detractors say, pointing especially to Duke's book.

The 718-page, $30 volume -- which Duke says is in its second printing after selling out its first, 15,000-copy edition -- portrays blacks as lower in intelligence and higher in criminality than whites, Jews as a cabal controlling the government and the media for its own ends, and immigrants as an "alien invasion" further diluting the nation's white heritage. Duke calls for an Aryan nation in which white Americans have their own schools, neighborhoods and cities.

"We shall end the racial genocide of integration," he writes. "We shall work for the eventual establishment of a separate homeland for African Americans."

Observes Silas Lee, a New Orleans-based pollster, "He's put the sheets back on."

In the past, especially during campaigns, has sometimes distanced himself from the KKK and its white-supremacist philosophy.

Duke, 48, joined the Klan as a teen-ager and became its grand wizard in 1975. But by the time he was elected to the Louisiana House in 1989, as a Republican, he claimed to have moderated his views.

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