In January 1989, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke was inching closer to the American mainstream. Duke was locked in a runoff election with an establishment Republican named John Treen. They were running for a seat in the Louisiana State House, in a 99.6 percent white district in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie.
Republicans in Louisiana loved Treen’s brother, Dave, the former governor. But John was seen as entitled and arrogant. He was the type of guy, one Republican said, who “can tell you good morning and piss you off.”
Treen had thought he could coast to victory on name recognition alone. When the race became a personality contest, he was severely outgunned. “He’s a perfectly decent guy, as far as I know,” says veteran New Orleans journalist James Gill. “But [Treen] had nothing really to commend him. No charisma, no color, no style, no dash.”
David Duke had the dash that Treen lacked. Duke’s fans reveled in his youth and energy. Earlier in the ’80s, he’d remade his face with plastic surgery: a nose job, chin implant, and chemical peels. One 72-year-old woman said that seeing Duke at her door was one of “the most thrilling moments of her life.”
Treen voters tended to be the very richest in District 81—the type that belonged to Metairie Country Club. Duke’s support was wider-ranging: middle-class people, working-class laborers, retirees. Many of the people that did like Duke were quick to dismiss his past with the Klan. “I mean, I see nothing wrong with being white. Pro-white does not necessarily mean anti-black,” one said in an interview that aired on ABC’s Nightline.
Treen himself was no great champion of civil rights. He’d once belonged to the segregationist States’ Rights Party. But he said his views on race had evolved, and he drew a bright line between his values and David Duke’s. One of Treen’s campaign mailers showed Treen in his Navy whites at age 19, serving his country during World War II. Alongside it was a photo of 19-year-old Duke, dressed as a Nazi brownshirt. That image wasn’t doctored: He really had worn a swastika. Instead of apologizing, Duke played the victim. He called that flyer “character assassination,” and made a show of tearing it up on local television.
Republican leaders were horrified by Duke, and by the prospect that he’d stain the party’s reputation. Ronald Reagan recorded a radio commercial supporting Treen, and the newly inaugurated President George H.W. Bush sent a pro-Treen letter to voters in the district. The Louisiana Republican Party backed Treen, too.
Duke, meanwhile, positioned himself as the ultimate outsider—someone who understood what it felt like to be put upon and forgotten. The race in District 81, he said, was “me against the world.”
Duke was desperate for every vote, campaigning hard on District 81’s busiest intersection on Election Day. Treen campaign volunteer Quin Hillyer, who was active in the Louisiana Young Republicans, was standing at that intersection too, and he remembers hearing Duke deliver a soothing message: “ ‘I love everybody. And I really want to do this right. I would really appreciate your vote.’ ” Hillyer also recalls watching Duke’s mood change in an instant. “When there was nobody else around immediately to see, he all of a sudden made a beeline toward me and started yelling at me and snarling. And his face got all red. And, he said, ‘Get off of my corner! This is my street corner. There are three other corners you can go to, get the hell out of here!’ ”
Duke’s opponent John Treen was one of the first people I spoke to when I started working on this season of Slow Burn. My main takeaway from interviewing Treen was that he still hated David Duke. Treen told me that Duke had spread a horrible lie about him during that 1989 race. Quin Hillyer got wind of it on Election Day: “In addition to all the other things I heard, I distinctly remember one person going by and rolling down their window and said, ‘No way I’m voting for your guy. He’s a child molester.’ ”
John Treen wasn’t a child molester. His brother, Paul, was facing charges of child sexual abuse. (Paul Treen would later plead no contest and be sentenced to probation.) But many voters thought it was John who had done something wrong, thanks to the Duke campaign’s whispers. That smear followed Treen long after the race was over. “I had people that for years later were—ignored me or had things to say, ugly things to say to me, because, you know, that word got out,” he told me.
I asked Treen what he would say if he could talk to Duke now.
“I wouldn’t speak to him. I would have nothing to say to him,” he replied.
Two months after we talked, Treen died of COVID-19. His obituary began with the race in District 81.
David Duke won, officially, by 227 votes. For the former Klansman and the people who loved him, that narrow victory felt like a landslide.
Plater Robinson, who was then an independent radio journalist, circulated through Duke’s election night party, asking his biggest fans to explain what had just happened.
“We don’t like people who are from another area who don’t know the issues and don’t know the people who are involved in this political race coming down here interfering in our politics and telling us how to vote,” one voter told him.
But the most common answer Robinson heard was that Duke would lower taxes. “We want change, we want something to be done, where we have to pay less tax and get more representation in the state. And that’s [why] we voted for David Duke, to get better representation. That’s the bottom line,” another said.
There was one thing, these people said, that didn’t influence their votes.
“It wasn’t a racial issue,” one Duke fan said.
“It wasn’t any racial issue,” said another.
“It’s economic all the way,” explained a third.
It was obvious to anyone who was paying even a scintilla of attention that a vote for Duke was a vote for the most extreme kind of prejudice. But by spending at least some of the campaign talking about taxes, Duke gave people in District 81 a cover story. He allowed them to claim that they simply liked his stances on the issues and the way he spoke his mind.