CHARLESTON, S.C. — In just eight months, Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina has skyrocketed from the legislature of a small, Southern state to a leadership role in a House Republican freshman class that has strong-armed its own leadership.
Since coming to Washington in January, Scott stood up to party bosses in high-profile debt talks, and he's championing his party's attack on a federal bureaucracy that, the GOP believes, is hurting U.S. capitalism by imposing too many regulations.
Now, as the GOP presidential campaign moves into high gear across the country, Scott has begun hosting Republican candidates at "Tim's Town Halls" in his congressional district, along the South Carolina coast with its white-sand beaches.
His impact stretches beyond the boundaries of the Palmetto State. 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."
Scott's rise reflects his 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.
The visits of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Utah 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 Republican presidential primary.
"The party has finally begun to recruit black candidates as a reaction to the rapidly changing landscape in this county," said Kerry L. Haynie, a Duke University political scientist. "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 recently told McClatchy 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 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 care plan enacted by the then-Democratic-controlled Congress in March 2010.
"Tim is just universally well-regarded up here," Mulvaney said in his Capitol Hill office. "He 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."
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."
Glenn McCall of Rock Hill, S.C., 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 whose shifting demographics mean 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 humor, he delivered a barb at one of his favorite targets.
"President Obama's done a better job of helping create more African-American candidates on the Republican side than anybody else," Scott said.
The Rev. Joseph Darby, head minister at the Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, said Scott's stringent criticism of Obama, support for uncompromising Republican stances and embrace of tea party activists have dismayed many of his black constituents.
"I don't know too many other black folks who think like Tim," Darby said. "He represents the aspirations people in South Carolina with whom I have no affinity and with whom very few people of color have any affinity."
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.
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."
In his home state, Scott has wrestled with public policy issues involving race — among them the flying of the Confederate flag atop the South Carolina statehouse, and suspected racial profiling among local law enforcement officers.
News accounts show that as a candidate for state office in 1996, Scott supported removing the Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse Dome. He ultimately lost the race.
Four years later, while in his position on the Charleston County Council, Scott joined other Republicans in voting to table a resolution that would have called on legislators to lower the flag.
In another case Scott discussed a racial profiling bill in 2002 that would have required sheriff's deputies to take note of who they stopped and why, and he shared his own experiences of being pulled over.
"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."
But Scott failed to back the proposed measure, and it died.
"Tim Scott has changed his positions to support his elevation to power," said Dorothy Scott (no relation to the congressman), who worked with Scott in the NAACP's Charleston branch. "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."
Democratic state Rep. Leon Stavrinakas, who sat with Scott on the Charleston County Council, wrote the racial profiling measure and said Scott promised to vote with him.
"It was obvious that he felt he was discriminated against," said Stavrinakas, who says Scott also had promised to back him on voting to lower the Confederate flag. "I was shocked when he didn't support it ultimately. On that and the flag, he left me stranded."
Scott denies having broken his pledge 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 last week. "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 Infinity 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 told McClatchy in his Charleston office.
Scott, who worships at Seacoast Church, an evangelical nondenominational mega-church in Mount Pleasant, S.C., 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.
Scott said he's looking no further down the road than being the best congressman he can for a district that will be significantly changed next year thanks to the 2010 Census results.
But should he decide to seek higher office, Scott need look no further than the woman he introduced to a cheering throng last month in Charleston: Just four years after joining Congress, Michele Bachmann is running for president.
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