U.S. Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican shunned by members of his own party for making sympathetic comments about white supremacists, has at least one colleague in South Carolina willing to defend him: U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman.
“I’m a great admirer of him,” King told McClatchy regarding Norman, a Rock Hill Republican. “He’s a noble man who understands an injustice, and when he sees one he wants to correct it.”
Norman himself is no stranger to controversy: The conservative hardliner is known for making provocative political statements.
One time, he placed a loaded gun on a table at a restaurant to make a point about firearm safety. Last fall, during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, he made a joke about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg being inappropriately touched by Abraham Lincoln.
This week, Norman asked fellow lawmakers to allow King to once again serve on congressional committees. Party leaders revoked King’s committee assignments earlier this year after a New York Times article quoted King as saying, “white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”
King insists the comments were taken out of context, and Norman told McClatchy it was not for him to say whether he believed King.
“I’m not defending what he said,” said Norman, adding that “his constituents will be the ultimate judge” of his behavior.
But King’s comments were viewed by many members of both parties as racist — and as the final straw in a long line of episodes where King tested the boundaries of acceptable rhetoric regarding race and immigration. For the past several months, King has been treated like a pariah on Capitol Hill, including by Norman’s colleagues in the South Carolina congressional delegation.
In January, responding to King’s New York Times interview, Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of North Charleston penned an op-ed for the Washington Post calling King part of the reason why the GOP has a reputation for being tone-deaf on race. Weeks later, U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat, helped lead the charge to rebuke King with a formal reprimand on the chamber floor.
But Norman has been trying to turn things around for King. First reported by Politico, the congressman has been helping making the rounds to collect signatures in support of his disgraced peer.
Norman told McClatchy that he stood up at a closed door members’ meeting Tuesday morning to implore Republicans to vote by secret ballot on the question of whether King should be allowed to resume his committee assignments.
He stressed it was not in defense of King’s comments, but out of respect for what the process ought to be — that is, the whole Republican Conference should decide King’s fate, not just top members of leadership.
“He’s denying it, and that’s neither hear nor there. The process of what they did to him is unfair. I would do this for a Democrat,” said Norman, who said he also reiterated to his colleagues the fact that King “is still getting a paycheck and that after being off committees for six months, it’s the right thing to do” to reinstate him.
Norman recalled he also pointed out that Democrats are “refusing to do anything at all regarding derogatory comments (and) action by their members,” a reference to U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, who has been accused of making anti-Semitic statements but has not been removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The House voted on a resolution to condemn hate speech but did not single Omar out directly.
He was also referring to U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., who used an explicative to describe President Donald Trump in public remarks. Republicans wanted Democrats to reprimand her for publicly disrespecting the nation’s highest office-holder.
After his remarks at the House Republican Conference meeting, Norman told McClatchy he was met with silence. He said it’s not likely he’ll be taking further action on King’s behalf, though he was spotted later in the day Tuesday discussing the matter informally with a few fellow House Republicans.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s up to Steve and others to move forward on pursuing his reinstatement,” Norman said. “I did want all of the members to know my thoughts ... I will not be doing anything further.”
Norman won his seat in South Carolina’s 5th District in a 2017 special election to succeed Mick Mulvaney, who left Congress to serve in President Donald Trump’s administration. He won a full term in office in 2018.
Democrats see the 5th District — which was held by Democrat John Spratt for nearly three decades and borders Charlotte, N.C. — as potentially competitive for their party, with the right candidate.
Democrats thought they had a chance with Archie Parnell, a local tax attorney who came within three percentage points of beating Norman in the special election. Parnell challenged Norman to a rematch and has the promise of support from national Democrats. But then court records revealed Parnell had broken into his ex-wife’s apartment with a tire iron and attacked her in 1973, at which point Parnell became a pariah of his own.
Norman’s controversial actions and statements — including his support for a divisive figure like King — could provide fodder for efforts to oust him in 2020.
At this point, however, there are no viable Democratic challengers in the 5th District.
There are also currently no Republicans looking to challenge Norman in a GOP primary, but the Hispanic Leadership Fund — a center-right, Latino advocacy group — has taken notice.
“Anyone who stands with (King) is certainly not a friend to communities who stand the most to gain from hearing a real conservative message,” Mario H. Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, told McClatchy in a statement.