The morning-after euphoria of Louisiana Jews and others who worked to defeat state Rep. David Duke in his bid for governor was tempered by the sobering realization that the former Ku Klux Klan leader racked up a whopping 39 percent of the vote in Saturday’s runoff election.
While former Gov. Edwin Edwards’ 61 percent share constitutes a landslide victory in ordinary political terms, observers maintained that Duke must be measured by a different yardstick than normal candidates.
“Even losing, Duke is victorious,” said Daniel Levitas of the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal, which tracks right-wing extremist groups.
Duke received nearly 700,000 votes, a significant increase over his unsuccessful showing last year in a race for the U.S. Senate.
“Even though Duke has been repudiated at the polls, the fact is that he received a large percentage of the Caucasian vote,” said Steve Gutow, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
“This indicates that there is a hard core of racism in Louisiana and across the country,” he said.
Saturday’s election saw a record voter turnout, particularly among the black voters, who make up 28 percent of Louisiana’s population and overwhelmingly opposed Duke.
The get-out-the-vote effort was a high priority for the Jewish community, which “worked like the dickens” on a “war zone” footing, said Jane Buchsbaum, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.
JEWS HAVE BEEN ‘DEEPLY AFRAID’
As non-profit organizations, the federation and other Jewish groups are barred from partisan political activity. But as individuals, Buchsbaum and other Jews worked hard in the Louisiana Coalition against Racism and Nazism, a political action committee that has fought Duke since 1989, when his first successful quest for political office elevated him to the Louisiana Statehouse.
“Jewish professionals and businessmen of Louisiana were the backbone of fund-raising efforts (for Edwards), assisted by Jewish groups and individuals all over the country,” said Rabbi Edward Cohn, head of the New Orleans Rabbinical Council. “We tried to be as invisible and behind the scenes as possible.”
Before sitting down to watch the election returns Saturday night, the Jews of Louisiana braced themselves for the worst. Cohn scheduled an assembly for his religious school, in which he feared he might have to explain to the school-children what Duke’s election meant for them.
In the three weeks since Duke placed second in Louisiana’s open primary, Louisiana Jews have been “deeply afraid,” said Buchsbaum. “We haven’t felt like that in a long while.
“We began to understand what the black community goes through all the time. Wearing our ‘No Duke’ buttons, we got looks from people. We saw people we thought were our friends were really Duke people,” she said.
In one incident, she said, a Molotov cocktail was tossed at a New Orleans synagogue but did not ignite.
The campaign reinvigorated black-Jewish coalitions. “Duke has maybe brought us together again,” said Buchsbaum.
Those coalitions are not expected to fade away. But neither is David Duke.
$2 MILLION IN DUKE CONTRIBUTIONS
The election “is over, but Mr. Duke’s desire for power is not. It is conceivable that he may one day win higher public office,” Alfred Moses, president of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement.
Levitas pointed out that Duke has “generated more than $2 million in contributions, more than 15,000 active contributors, more than 100,000 people on his mailing list. He has become the pre-eminent leader of the white supremacist movement in America.”
Levitas predicts that Duke will run in the early presidential primaries this spring and will ultimately be elected to Congress from a mostly white Louisiana district next year.
Levitas said Duke’s defeat has taught an important lesson in the battle against extremists.
“In order to win against racism, you have got to be willing to confront directly those who promote hate,” he said. “For the past several years, we’ve seen people trying to dodge Duke, ignore Duke and hope it goes away.”
One problem, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, is that laws governing tax-exempt organizations prohibit the ADL and similar groups from disseminating what they know about extremists like Duke.
The real message of this election, Foxman said, is that the American political etiquette has changed for the worst.
“There used to be a time in this country where somebody who was a racist publicly, in the present or in his past, was automatically viewed as illegitimate in the public affairs arena.
“Duke declared it legitimate,” said Foxman. “You can be a neo-Nazi, a former Klansman, and you are still legitimate to run for office, to appear on ‘Meet the Press’ or ‘Nightline.'”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.