In June 2015, a 21-year-old white supremacist named Dylann Roof gunned down nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in an effort, he said, to instigate a race war. He posted a manifesto online that credited the St. Louis-based Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist organization led by Earl Holt, for making him aware of “brutal black on White murders.” News soon emerged that Holt was a donor to a number of conservative politicians, including Steve King, whom he gave $2,500 in a series of five contributions from June 2012 to October 2014.
King’s campaign vowed to give the money to the church and a fund set up for the victims of the shooting. But other King donors during that same period — when the congressman was promoting the Obama birther conspiracy theory, made his infamous comment about drug-smuggling undocumented immigrants with “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” and remarked that protesters demanding justice for the police shooting death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, were all of the same “continental origin” — have received little or no notice.
Among them was Louis Klemp, the former Leavenworth County, Kansas, commissioner who was pressured to resign last month after bizarre comments he made to Triveece Penelton, a black city planner giving a presentation on land use. From October 2012 to November 2013, in the cycles King ran against former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack and Iraq war veteran Jim Mowrer, Klemp made small donations to his campaigns on 13 separate occasions for a combined $1,250. Klemp’s donations to King have not been previously reported.
“I don’t want you to think I’m picking on you, because we’re part of the master race,” Klemp told Penelton at the recent county meeting. Then, pointing to his own teeth, he added: “You know you got a gap in your teeth. You’re the master race, don’t ever forget that.”
In a Nov. 20 resignation letter, Klemp claimed that his “attempts at identifying a similarity with a presenter were well-meaning but misinterpreted by some and definitely not racially motivated.” However, the master race was a central concept of the Nazi ideology that white Aryans from northern and western Europe were racially superior to other groups of people — part of the reason that King’s comment at the July 2016 Republican National Convention that “Western civilization” contributed more to human history than any other “subgroup” was so controversial.
It wasn’t the first time Klemp made a racist statement. At another meeting a year earlier, he commented on the county’s holiday schedule in a rambling, eight-minute speech during which he criticized Martin Luther King Jr. Day, asked why Oprah Winfrey didn’t have a holiday, praised Confederate soldier Robert E. Lee, claimed his great, great grandfather owned a slave, and said that some black people didn’t like Abraham Lincoln because he didn’t end slavery quickly enough for them.
Other controversial King donors who gave during the same general timeframe as Holt and Klemp include Elizabeth Van Staaveren, a founder of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, who contributed a combined $1,843 to King’s 2012 and 2014 campaigns. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremism across the country, considers OFIR a hate group because of its leadership’s “longstanding ties to hate groups” and “history of making racist statements.”
Van Staaveren has also been a major backer of anti-immigrant political action committees. From 2000 to 2015, she gave $31,500 to the US Immigration Reform PAC run by Mary Lou Tanton. Tanton is the wife of white nationalist John Tanton, who is described by the SPLC as the founder of the “organized anti-immigrant movement in the United States” and once summed up his views in a letter that read, “I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.” The PAC has given $13,687 to King since the 2002 election cycle, including $1,000 in 2018.
The Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, headed by the far-right North Carolina nativist William Gheen, has received $59,850 from Van Staaveren. In 2007, Gheen interviewed an agreeable King on the subject of what the PAC described as “illegal alien murders on American soil.” For years, King has falsely suggested that undocumented immigrants commit violent crimes at a higher rate than US citizens, a myth he revisited after the murder of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts at the hands of an undocumented farm worker.
The views expressed by some lesser-known donors to King during the same period suggest that they, too, were drawn to the congressman’s harsh rhetoric as he played a prominent role in undermining the bipartisan effort for comprehensive immigration reform.
They include Kenneth Cillo, a retiree from Tennessee who gave King four donations totaling $700 over several months in 2014. That November, after President Obama announced a series of executive actions intended to protect as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, Cillo joined a protest staged on a highway overpass by Overpasses for America, which describes itself as a “non-partisan grass roots movement” and called for the prosecution of “the corrupt Barack Hussein Obama” for “his many unconstitutional actions.” “I’ve never been so afraid of any president in my life as this guy,” Cillo told a local reporter. “Maybe he doesn’t outright hate America, but he has a very negative view of this country. He says you’ve got to fundamentally change it. What is so terrible that needs fundamental changing?” (Obama made the comment in the context of criticizing Wall Street greed and Bush administration policies while running for president in 2008.)
Another supporter, a retired physicist from Montana named Paul Nachman who gave King $550 from 2012 to 2014, was dubbed “one of the most outspoken critics of migration in Gallatin County” by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in 2010. “We are importing an underclass, importing poverty,” he told the newspaper of the millions of immigrants who were “changing the character of this country.” Employing the rhetoric of hardliners like King, who later described illegal immigration as a “slow-rolling, slow-motion terrorist attack on the United States” and a “slow-motion Holocaust,” Nachman added: “I just can see what’s happening to this country. A grand system is being slowly destroyed by mass immigration.”