By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Elizabeth "Beth" Rickey, 53, a Louisiana Republican activist who played a major role in thwarting the political rise of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in the late 1980s, died Sept. 11 at a hotel in Santa Fe, N.M. She had an immune disorder and Crohn's disease.
Miss Rickey, a doctoral student in government who was on the Louisiana Republican Party's state central committee, spoke out against Duke when he ran for the state legislature and documented his continuing ties to neo-Nazis. For her efforts, she said, she endured death threats and multiple attempts by pickup trucks to run her off the road.
"Beth Rickey, perhaps more than any single person, helped stop the meteoric political rise of neo-Nazi David Duke," Quin Hillyer, a Washington Times editorial writer who had worked with her 20 years ago, wrote in a column Tuesday. "People today may forget what a political force Duke had become in Louisiana back then."
Presenting himself as a Reagan conservative who had eschewed his KKK past, Duke narrowly won a special election in 1989 to represent an overwhelmingly white district in the state legislature. Miss Rickey was appalled that someone she regarded as a huckster could be elected by her party, friends said.
"She was courageous and heroic, partly because of what [Duke] represented and the kind of people he attracted -- a lot of angry people," said Lawrence Powell, a history professor at Tulane University, who helped her form the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism. "She and just a few others said 'this is wrong.' " Duke couldn't stand the idea that an intellectual conservative Republican like Miss Rickey despised his ideology. He wooed her with lunches and late-night phone calls.
"He would start out with this conservative angle about welfare, but then he would say, 'Beth, once you know the truth, you'll never be the same,' " she told The Washington Post in 1991. "His truth was that Jews are behind all the trouble in the world. It always came back to the Jews. It's kind of disturbing when you know you've got a zealot on your hands."
She tape-recorded more than 30 hours of their talks and publicized the conversations. One of the conversations went on so long that she dozed off, only to reawaken and hear him still talking about the evils of racial mixing.
Born June 11, 1956, in Lafayette, La., Elizabeth Ann Rickey grew up a conservative, supported Sen. Barry Goldwater's (R-Ariz.) presidential bid in 1964, and voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.
She graduated from what is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she also received a master's degree. She taught government at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond until beginning doctoral studies in political science at the University of New Orleans that she continued at Tulane.
In 1988, she was elected to the 140-person Republican state committee. The following year, Duke came out of nowhere to upset the brother of a former governor in a special legislative election in Metairie.
Miss Rickey, working for Duke's opponent, "realized sooner than almost anybody else that Duke was both more sinister than ordinary redneck racists and far more politically savvy," Hillyer wrote. After he won by 227 votes, a margin of 1 percent, she followed him to a national neo-Nazi convention in Chicago and taped him making a racist speech. She also visited his legislative office, where she bought anti-Semitic books.
At the state party convention that fall, she tried to get the central committee to censure Duke. She failed, but the effort brought Duke more attention.
Even before Duke ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1990, he tried to co-opt the woman who dogged him. Over moo goo gai pan in a local Chinese restaurant, he told Miss Rickey that the Holocaust never happened.
"What about my father? What were all those dead bodies my father saw at Buchenwald?" asked Miss Rickey, whose father had served in an Army division that reached the Nazi death camp.
Duke, Miss Rickey told The Post, reacted to the question with a flip of the hand. "He said, 'Oh, those bodies, they died of starvation,' " she recalled. "It was an attitude of disinterest or contempt. Then he got into talking about Rudolf Hess and [Adolf] Eichmann and what a bad deal they got."
By 1991, when Duke challenged Gov. Edwin Edwards (D), her work paid off. Duke lost, taking 38.8 percent of the vote. His subsequent political races were futile, and in 2003 he was sentenced to 15 months in a federal prison after pleading guilty to filing a false tax return. In April of this year, he was ousted from the Czech Republic for promoting movements that suppress human rights.
The American Jewish Committee gave Miss Rickey an award in 1991, and in 2000 she was inducted into the Louisiana Center for Women in Government's Hall of Fame.
After her victory against Duke, Miss Rickey began drifting. She converted from Presbyterianism to Catholicism in 1992, and on a mission trip to Mexico, she caught a virus that she could never shake, she told friends. A New Orleans resident for many years, she subsequently lived in Washington state and New Mexico, among other places.
In a telephone interview with the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper last week, she said she had spent her life savings on health care and was too ill to work. She had lived much of the summer on a friend's couch until another friend paid for a week's lodging at the motel where she died. The afternoon before she was found dead, a social worker from Jewish Community Services located a philanthropist who could help her, but when that person called, her phone went unanswered.
Survivors include a brother, Robert Rickey of Crediton, England.
"I think the Duke episode really derailed her life and plans," said Powell. "She never did find her grounding again. Her health, both physical and emotional, was bad. She had given a lot and lost a lot. She was what down here we call a stand-up dame."