Hosting presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann at Trident Technical College last month, Rep. Tim Scott displayed the cool under pressure and quick wits that have made him one of the fastest-rising stars in Washington.
Called on to ask Bachmann a question, a conservative activist named Sheri Irwin launched into a passionate rant against illegal immigration.
While many lawmakers might have allowed a constituent to vent for a minute or two, Scott immediately cut Irwin off.
Flashing the broad smile that’s quickly become a fixture on Capitol Hill, Scott calmly but repeatedly asked Irwin to sit down as she ignored his first requests.
“Thank you so much, Sheri,” the 1st District congressman said. “Have a seat, Sheri. Thank you so much. If you continue to talk, I’ll continue to talk. Have a seat, Sheri. Thank you so much.”
As Irwin finally sat down and the audience applauded Scott’s smooth settling of the disruption, he pivoted and, still smiling, said to Bachmann:
“I think she’s focusing on an issue we all care about, but for the sake of the audience who showed up to hear from you, Michele, I want the focus to be on you.”
A few minutes later, Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, embraced Scott and exclaimed to the cheering crowd: “All of us in Washington, D.C., are extremely proud of you for choosing the right man to send from Charleston to Washington, D.C.! We love his stuff!”
In just eight months, Rep. Tim Scott has skyrocketed from state legislator to House Republican freshman class leader who stood up to his party bosses in high-profile debt talks and is heading his party’s attack on federal bureaucrats accused of impeding U.S. capitalism.
The GOP-controlled House on Sept. 15 passed Scott’s bill weakening the National Labor Relations Board by ending its bid to prevent Boeing’s operation of a North Charleston plant and banning the agency from controlling where other firms do business.
Now, as the GOP presidential campaign moves into high gear, Scott is hosting Republican candidates at “Tim’s Town Halls” in his congressional district, which, until redistricting changes its boundaries, stretches from Charleston County to include part of Georgetown and Horry counties.
Scott’s rise reflects his own keen intelligence, winning personality and intriguing biography. The youngest of three boys, he’s the son of a single mom and grew up poor in North Charleston. There he built a successful insurance business and launched a political career as that rarest of breeds – a black Republican.
Not an ‘angry white guy’
The visits of Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Godfathers Pizza CEO Herman Cain to Scott’s district in recent weeks reflect more than his state’s elevated political status as home to the first-in-the-South GOP presidential primary.
Elected with Allen West of Florida last November as the only two African-American Republicans in Congress, Scott’s ascent is significant for a party eager to shed its image as, in Sen. Lindsey Graham’s words, “the party of angry white guys.”
The photographs and videos of GOP White House aspirants locking hands with Scott and holding arms aloft in Charleston, Conway, Daniel Island and other hubs of his district may be more important to them than to him.
“The Republican Party will cease to exist if it can’t attract black and brown voters,” said Kerry L. Haynie, a Duke University political scientist and African-American studies professor. “The party has finally begun to recruit black candidates as a reaction to the rapidly changing landscape in this county. Tim Scott is an example. I think we’ll see more of that.”
The former star high school tailback, a deeply religious man, downplays the importance of his race in his current post.
“I’ve been black for (all my) 46 years, so it’s kind of hard for me to step out of my own skin and say what role it plays in the eyes of other people,” Scott said in his Charleston office.
The evolution of Scott’s political career and ideology reveals a complex dynamic when it comes to racial issues.
Unlike West, Scott declined to join the Congressional Black Caucus, saying he campaigned on “themes that unite all Americans.”
Like the three other South Carolina Republicans swept into Congress – Reps. Muck Mulvaney, Jeff Duncan and Trey Gowdy – Scott campaigned on the need to slash government spending, cut the $14.7 trillion federal debt and enact a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.
Scott also joined the others in pushing for repeal of “ObamaCare,” the landmark health insurance plan enacted by the then-Democratic-controlled Congress in March 2010.
“Tim is just universally well-regarded up here,” Mulvaney, of Indian Land, said in his Capitol Hill office. “I don’t think he has any upside limitation.
“Tim wants to be known as a really good, solid conservative congressman from South Carolina. For those of us who know him, his race doesn’t enter the calculation,” Mulvaney said.
Scott’s self-assessment is equally straightforward.
“My lineup is – I’m a Christian first, everything else falls after that,” he said. “So there’s really no comparison between being a Christian and being black for me. I think I’m male and black and a conservative Christian who happens to be Republican. All those things go together, and they all serve a greater purpose. My purpose is to positively impact the lives of a billion people with a message of hope and opportunity.”
Glenn McCall of Rock Hill, one of only two African-Americans on the 168-member Republican National Committee, said Scott can help the party broaden its base in a country with shifting demographics in which whites will soon make up less than half the population.
“It’s just good overall to have a strong, bright conservative like Tim Scott representing our party,” McCall said. “It doesn’t hurt that he’s a person of color.”
Scott said he feels no special obligation to draw other blacks to his party, though he would welcome them. Flashing his trademark humor, he delivered a barb at one of his favorite targets, saying President Obama is driving more blacks to the GOP fold than he himself could persuade.
“President Obama’s done a better job of helping create more African-American candidates on the Republican side than anybody else,” Scott said.
Scott said last year during his congressional campaign that he’d fared well with black voters, drawing a quarter or more of their votes in his earlier general elections for the Charleston County Council and the S.C. House of Representatives. The specific racial breakdown of votes in those races wasn’t available, but the U.S. Justice Department, in its 2001 lawsuit against the county, rejected the county’s claims that Scott, as a black councilman, was proof that it didn’t need to move to district-based elections in order to create more diversity on the council.
In its ultimately successful suit, the Justice Department said the council’s countywide elections violated the Voting Rights Act because that law guarantees blacks’ access to candidates who share their views – and DOJ said local African-Americans’ voting patterns suggested that Scott didn’t share their views.
“I don’t know too many other black folks who think like Tim,” the Rev. Joseph Darby, an influential civil rights leader as head minister at the Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
“He represents the aspirations of people in South Carolina with whom I have no affinity and with whom very few people of color have any affinity,” Darby said.
Indeed, among the crowd of 300 people at the forum for Bachmann, only a few were black, one of them Scott’s mother.
Darby said Scott’s stringent criticism of Obama, support for uncompromising GOP stances and embrace of tea party activists have dismayed many of his black constituents.
“The tea party is a new version of the Ku Klux Klan that’s sanitized and more acceptable,” Darby said. “No more sheets – just tea bags and colonial garb.”
During his campaign last year, Scott dismissed such criticism as “stereotyping a diverse group of Americans.”
Joe Dugan, head of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party, said his organization, which endorsed Scott, and allied groups played a big role in his election to Congress.
“I don’t want to say that he’s an official representative of the tea party, but he knows how the tea party feels about issues and the Constitution,” Dugan said. “He is carrying those positions to Washington with him. It’s a very smart move, in my humble opinion.”
Haynie, the Duke political scientist, said Scott’s desire to downplay his race is naive.
“Black people in general, but certainly black politicians, don’t have the luxury of being a politician first or a Republican first, and then a black,” Haynie said. “Regardless of how Scott might want to see himself, that’s not how he’s going to be perceived.”
As she follows his progress in Washington, Dorothy Scott (no relation to the congressman) wonders what happened to the Tim Scott she knew not so many years ago.
Then, as a successful black businessman, Scott sat on the Freedom Fund Committee of the NAACP’s Charleston branch, which Dorothy Scott heads, helped organize its annual fundraising gala – and received an award from the group.
“Tim Scott has changed his positions to support his elevation to power,” Dorothy Scott said. “It comes down to which way the winds are blowing stronger. It’s more favorable now for him to be ultraconservative, so that’s where he is.”
In 1996, Scott ran for the S.C. House in an unsuccessful challenge of state Rep. Robert Ford, a powerful African-American Democrat.
Running in a predominantly black district, Scott took a stand on the most racially charged issue of the day and supported removing the Confederate flag from above the Statehouse dome, according to news accounts at the time.
Four years later, Democratic S.C. Rep. Leon Stavrinakas, who sat with Scott on the Charleston County Council, said Scott promised to back his measure calling on legislators to lower the Confederate flag.
But when the resolution came before the council, Scott joined other Republicans in voting to table it, and the measure died.
In 2002, Stavrinakas said Scott pledged to support another controversial bill tied to race – requiring that sheriff’s deputies write down the race of each driver they pulled over and record the reason for the stop.
“Racial profiling is real,” Scott told other council members at a May 16, 2002, session. “It’s not the rule, but it is a consistent and pervasive problem in this country.”
Stavrinakas said Scott became emotional over dinner one night as he described the times he’d been unfairly stopped by police.
Yet Scott failed to back Stavrinakas’ racial-profiling measure when the council took it up, and it too died.
“It was obvious that he felt he was discriminated against,” Stavrinakas said. “I was shocked when he didn’t support it ultimately. On that and the flag, he left me stranded.”
Scott denies having broken his word on either issue. In the flag controversy, he later backed a compromise that saw the Confederate banner moved from above the dome to a less conspicuous place on the Statehouse grounds.
“South Carolina’s history includes the heritage of the confederacy,” he said Wednesday. “We ought not to be offended by that fact.”
On racial profiling, Scott emphatically affirms that he was pulled over numerous times in Charleston because he “was in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time driving the wrong kind of car” – an Infiniti sports sedan.
Just as he de-emphasizes his race these days, Scott downplays his significance in the current White House contest.
“I want the voters in my district and throughout the state to have an opportunity to hear from the candidates – and to actually hear more from them than simply a 60-second response in a debate or a TV commercial,” Scott said.
Scott was asked whether his presidential forums reflect ambition for higher office – the governor’s mansion, a U.S. Senate seat or even the VP slot on the Republican White House ticket next year.
Scott ruled out running in 2014 against Sen. Lindsey Graham, a relative GOP moderate seen by some as being vulnerable to a Republican primary challenge.
Scott said 2016 is too far away to know whether he’ll run for Senate then, though he’s indicated he’d like to succeed Sen. Jim DeMint if the tea party favorite follows through on plans to leave Washington after two terms.
“The way I have learned to live this life is to figure out how far the light shows you and go to the end of the light,” Scott said. “It’s unrealistic for me to tell you what I plan to do in three or four years politically when you and I both know that the political waters change as fast as the sun comes up and the sun goes down.”
Scott, who worships at Seacoast Church, an evangelical nondenominational mega-church in Mount Pleasant, said he’s not even certain his long-term future lies in politics.
“One thing that I am very interested in is helping to make this world better, whether I can do that in one neighborhood or one town or one state or one nation or the entire world,” he said. “That really trumps my position in politics. What vehicle the good Lord provides me to help make a difference, that’s where I want to be.”
Scott’s decision to vote against Speaker John Boehner’s compromise measures to raise the debt ceiling in late July prompted speculation that he’d harmed his future in the House leadership.
Boehner, though, was the chief roaster Wednesday night at a Capitol Hill birthday bash for Scott, who turned 46 two days earlier.
“I’d say that my relationship (with Boehner) is healthier than it has been, and it was pretty healthy before,” Scott said.
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