BLACK and white legislators here are engaging in increasingly rancorous debate, with many blaming Rep. David Duke (R) of Metairie, a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, for stirring up racial tensions. The key issue is a bill proposed by Mr. Duke that opponents charge would significantly cut back the state's affirmative action programs for minority workers and job-seekers. The bill was passed, 66-34, by the House of Representatives on May 29.
Duke, elected to the House just last year, is seeking to unseat veteran Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D) in this year's United States Senate race in Louisiana. He has argued that the affirmative-action programs discriminate against white people, because they award jobs on the basis of color rather than merit.
In his 1989 campaign, Duke proposed eliminating affirmative-action programs as well as set-aside plans, which reserve a percentage of government contracts for qualified minority bidders.
Duke's call to eliminate or reduce affirmative action had received little attention from fellow lawmakers until the state's 29-member Acadian (Cajun) delegation voted en masse for his bill.
Senate passage of the bill is seen as unlikely; but, if it should happen, Gov. Buddy Roemer (D) has stated that he will veto it.
According to several legislative observers here, the Acadian lawmakers backed Duke in retaliation for the loss of three crucial black votes from the 20-member Legislative Black Caucus - votes that could have averted defeat for a statewide lottery, strongly favored by the Acadians.
The lottery vote created a breach in the once-potent Black-Cajun coalition, a significant part of former Gov. Edwin Edwards's political base.
``There's always the potential for racial polarity when you have someone like Duke in the legislature,'' says Ed Renwick, a political analyst with the Institute of Politics at Loyola University.
``The affirmative-action bill is just an example of the kind of things that Duke can help to promote when legislators begin to vote or think purely along racial lines,'' he says.
Rep. Melvin ``Kip'' Holden (D) of Baton Rouge said the affirmative-action vote was especially bad because it caused resentment among lawmakers who formerly were able to work together.
``The agenda of this man [Duke] is to divide people in this body and divide the people in this state along racial lines. That's his whole agenda,'' Holden said. ``The legislature is not dealing with the interests of the people. We're dealing with this man and with legislation that is racially divisive. That's all we're dealing with.''
Other political leaders see the vote on Duke's bill as most damaging to Louisiana's national image.
``We've got enough problems in Louisiana without adding demagogic political or racial overtones,'' said Governor Roemer in a speech after the vote. ``Does it mean we have a smaller window to crawl through into the 21st century? I'm not sure, but it hurts - not permanently, but it hurts.''
Appearing with Roemer, Senator Johnston noted that there had been a large number of negative stories in the national press about the affirmative-action vote.
``Suddenly, Louisiana is presenting a picture of division - white vs. black,'' Johnston said. ``Next it will be religion. If you want to know what will put out the lights in this state quicker than anything, it's racial problems. People all over the country are looking at Louisiana, wanting to know what is going on.''
Duke, in a press conference after the vote, contended that his bill only calls for ``equal rights and no discrimination, either against the minority or the majority.''
He added that he was ``getting tired'' of frequent reports in the press and criticism from his political opponents concerning his past involvement with the Ku Klux Klan.
``I live in the present,'' Duke said, implying that his Ku Klux Klan days are over.
But researchers for the newly formed Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism say that Duke is on the record as recently as the fall of 1989 both defending his past involvement with the Ku Klux Klan as well as agreeing with aspects of Nazism and Adolf Hitler's views on racial science.
Says analyst Renwick: ``There have always been some racial tensions, but I don't believe that Duke has formed a wedge between the white and black legislators. They have to work together, and they know that. Even Duke cannot break down the process completely.''