In a city where members of Congress and lobbyists sport “glory walls” adorned with photos of them posing with the high and mighty, the birthday party can be a pretty good barometer of someone’s real status. So who were in attendance when freshman Rep. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, turned 46 in September? House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
That turnout was impressive, especially because Scott had been giving the leaders fits for months. Three weeks earlier, he had refused to vote to raise the debt ceiling, despite pleas from Boehner and others. Before that, Scott opposed leadership-backed bills to keep the government funded. If anyone represents the intractable, hardheaded ideology of the new Right, it’s Scott. “Yeah, I’m not much of a compromiser,” he said, looking back at the votes without regret.
Hewing to such a hard line was difficult at the time. Scott’s office got so many calls that his staff had to shut down the phone lines twice. Scott is one of only two black Republicans in Congress, and many of the calls were filled with racially charged insults. And the anger didn’t just come from off the Hill. Scott said he received his fair share of cold shoulders in the hallway, and one fellow Republican even reminded him in the bathroom that South Carolina hadn’t yet seceded from the Union.
The intransigence could have gotten another lawmaker shunned or punished. Not Scott. “He is leadership personified,” said Cantor, a featured guest at the party and fundraiser. “He has a lot of magnetism and a lot of charisma. And, obviously, he’s very unique; he’s an African-American Republican and a conservative at that.” Cantor has good reason to stay close to Scott. With minorities comprising a growing share of the voting-age population, the Republican Party can’t afford to rely almost exclusively on support from whites. Unless the GOP attracts more minorities, it will be consigned to second-class status. “If we are going to be successful,” Cantor said, “we need to be a party of inclusion and have a welcome sign out front.”
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As it stands, Republicans have a messaging problem when it comes to reaching black voters, and the 2012 presidential campaign is exacerbating that disconnect. Remember when Newt Gingrich called Barack Obama a “food-stamp” president, or when Rick Santorum said, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money”?
Former Rep. J.C. Watts, who was also a black Republican in the House, spoke about the need for better messaging at the Conservative Black Forum on Capitol Hill earlier this year. “Somebody that looks like us needs to be at the strategists’ table to say, ‘I know what you’re trying to say, but I wouldn’t say it like that,’ ” Watts said.
In the House, at least, that somebody appears to be Scott.
The former state legislator and insurance salesman is a natural. He holds town-hall audiences in the palm of his hands by drawing from his favorite motivational speakers (whom he listens to in his car, alternating between inspiration and Hootie and the Blowfish) and touting his unyielding conservative ideology. He knows the favorite sports teams of the U.S. Capitol Police officers. He once took the stage to perform a cover of “Don’t Stop Believing” at a Mike Huckabee fundraiser. And he pitched himself out of a jam at the annual congressional baseball game, after walking the bases loaded.
Political observers are already talking up the possibility of Scott’s becoming his state’s junior senator when Republican Jim DeMint’s term expires in 2016. DeMint has said he will not seek another term. A Scott win would be historic: Only one other black Republican (Edward Brooke of Massachusetts) has served in the Senate since 1881.
“He has a lot of magnetism and a lot of charisma. And, obviously, he’s very unique.”—House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, on Tim Scott
Not long ago, Scott went to lunch with three staffers and a reporter. His aides looked around nervously as their boss chatted with a waitress about Madonna’s Super Bowl halftime show. A recent GQ story had described Scott as being a bit flirty with a waitress at a tapas bar, and the staffers were hoping that he wouldn’t do anything embarrassing at this lunch.
Then the waitress made physical contact. “I think you’re hot,” she said, putting her palm on Scott’s freshly shaved head. “I can feel your heat from over here.”
“Most people say I’m hot,” Scott said. “I agree.” One of his aides let out an audible sigh. The waitress left and the staff members looked at one another. But Scott leaned forward and laughed, unconcerned about the reporter’s presence. After all, Scott has been untouchable since he arrived in D.C.
THE IMPACT OF RACE
When asked if his success has anything to do with race, Scott scratched his head, paused, and looked to the ceiling for inspiration. “No, no, not really,” he said. “No. I don’t think they care. I don’t think they care at all. Not much.”
He didn’t sound completely convinced.
After Scott and Rep. Allen West of Florida won election to the House in 2010, a lot of hoopla accompanied the arrival of the first two black Republicans from the South since Reconstruction. Whether the South Carolinian likes to admit it or not, his race has boosted his political career from the beginning. Being a conservative African-American in the GOP has expanded his platform and his profile.
“We are naive if we don’t believe that certain topics are best broached and best discussed by people who come from certain community groups,” said fellow freshman GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. “He’s in a prominent position in our party, and he should be.”
Republicans have had Great Black Hopes before. J.C. Watts was one. Colin Powell was another, until his ambivalence about running for president took him out of the conversation and the party moved right while he stayed in the center. West sometimes gets mentioned in the same breath as Scott, but he has proven to be far more combustible. West has been quoted as saying that Nazi Joseph Goebbels would be proud of the Democratic Party’s “propaganda machine,” and he once called Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schulz of Florida “the most vile, unprofessional, and despicable member of the U.S. House of Representatives.”
Scott often takes controversial stances, but he rarely if ever strays from the path of decorum, even if he has had to forge that path pretty much on his own. Upon arriving in the House, he rejected an invitation to join the Congressional Black Caucus because he said he didn’t feel the need to represent one group over any others. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., the chairman of the caucus, said he couldn’t comment on Scott’s performance in Congress because the Republican has made himself so scarce to the group that Cleaver hasn’t gotten to know him. Scott’s distance from the CBC is intentional. When he speaks, he says, he wants to do so as a conservative American.
“We are naive if we don’t believe that certain topics are best broached and best discussed by people who come from certain community groups.”—Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.
Of course, like it or not, people see and hear him as an African-American, and minority audiences aren’t necessarily receptive to his gospel. “I don’t care who the messenger is; they have to have a message,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who represents a district that is 54 percent African-American, compared to Scott’s 20 percent. “Tim’s an outstanding young man, and I enjoy working with him. I could not get elected in his district, and I assure you he could not get elected in mine.”
If Scott finds his role as a black Republican strange, he doesn’t let on. “There’s a fine line between touting your success and showcasing your success in a negative way,” he said. “We all want to tout our success, but you don’t want to put anyone on a pedestal or showcase them like you’re at a circus.”
A CHICKEN SANDWICH
Whatever attention now accrues to Scott for being a black Republican, growing up poor and black in Charleston, S.C., presented obstacles to overcome. He was raised by a single mother who worked 16 hours a day as a nurse’s assistant to make ends meet. Scott says he still speaks with her three times a day.
In high school, he took an after-school job at a movie theater. He would take breaks at the nearby Chick-fil-A because the girls were cute and the fries were cheap. One day, the restaurant owner, John Moniz, came by the cinema with a chicken sandwich for Scott, and the two got to talking. The friendship that developed was life-changing for Scott. Moniz was a devout conservative Christian who encouraged a strong work ethic. He told Scott, who was struggling in school, that football could be a gateway to college. Scott finished high school and earned a partial football scholarship to Presbyterian College. He eventually transferred to Charleston Southern University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.
If not for his relationship with Moniz, Scott would probably not have become a Republican. The businessman instilled in the young man a belief in tough love, hard work, and low taxes. When Scott says today that the best way to unlock people’s potential is to give them space to be entrepreneurial, he is thinking about Moniz.
After graduation, Scott ran an insurance company and owned part of a real-estate agency. In 1994, he made a key political decision, one that would turn his race from an impediment into a force that propelled him forward. Scott wanted to run for the Charleston County Council, but he hadn’t yet decided his political affiliation. On one hand, his family members and many of his friends were Democrats. On the other, he had the teachings of the now-deceased Moniz rattling around his head, and he had worked for Republican Mark Sanford’s congressional campaign.
Scott met with some of his friends in the Democratic Party who had been wooing him. At that point, he said, he was “open to whatever in order to run for office.” But when his friends told him he would have to work his way up to the council by sitting on various committees around town, he told them, “I’m not waiting on anything.”
Scott ran as a Republican in 1995. That decision was philosophical, he said, but the political benefits were vast. The Republican Party, eager to tout its diversity, donated the maximum of $5,000 to his campaign. It was the first time the party had allotted that much money to a county-council candidate. Scott prevailed 80 percent to 20 percent over his Democratic opponent.
“His election was truly special,” former state party Chairman Henry McMaster told National Journal. “That he was going to be the first black official in a long time was certainly part of it. It sends a very strong message, a good message—that the Republican Party is the party for all the people. It’s a lot easier when you have a good messenger. Saying it is one thing; showing it is another.”
From the start, Scott’s presence on the council paid dividends for Republicans. Civil-rights advocates in the city had long claimed that its at-large districts made it difficult for minorities to get proper representation, but a lawsuit asserting that Charleston’s at-large system violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was thrown out shortly after Scott’s election. In 2001, after a series of appeals, Charleston adopted a system of single-member districts, but during the interim, Republicans often cited Scott’s place on the council as proof that minorities could get elected there.
The young council member earned chits with the GOP establishment by serving as statewide campaign cochairman for onetime segregationist Strom Thurmond in his final senatorial campaign in 1996. Scott explained his decision to The New York Times by saying that Thurmond’s views on race had evolved. “The Strom Thurmond I knew had nothing to do with” segregation, he said. (In 2010, Scott defeated Thurmond’s son, Paul, in the Republican primary runoff for his House seat.) Scott boasts that during his time on the Charleston County Council, he did not vote for a single net tax increase. But perhaps more noteworthy was his openness about maintaining conservative purity on a personal level.
As a 30-year-old, Scott would speak at schools about the importance of abstinence until marriage. He didn’t hesitate to tell the story of his own virginity as an unmarried man. “Talking to teens and college students about sexual purity is a hot ticket for me because I’m single,” he told The Post and Courier in Charleston in 1995. “I know what it means to struggle on the issue of sex. But it’s worth the wait.”
Scott laughed when asked recently about whether as a 46-year-old bachelor he adheres to the same virtues that he did at 30. “Yeah.… Not as well as I did then,” he said in his Capitol Hill office. “At the end of the day, the Bible is very clear: abstinence until marriage. Not to do so is a sin.” Scott said he would still go to schools to preach the importance of abstinence but would no longer use his own story. “I wouldn’t talk about that anymore,” he said with a smile. “The Bible’s right—you’re better off to wait. I just wish we all had more patience.”
HEADED TO THE SENATE?
In 2008, Scott drove his 89-year-old grandfather to the voting booth in South Carolina. It was an emotional day, as Scott watched his grandfather, who grew up in a Jim Crow South, have the opportunity to cast his vote for the first African-American president of the United States. “It really was amazing for him,” Scott said. “He grew up in a time and place where the racial challenges were at a very high level. It was a wonderful experience to watch my grandfather see something that happened in this country that seemed to be impossible.”
And what happened next?
“I canceled his vote out,” Scott said.
Given his start on Capitol Hill, Scott seems poised to do a lot more than just cancel out votes. As a lawmaker who can buck his leaders and still win their backing, Scott is positioning himself to become much more than a rank-and-file House member.
South Carolina is among the reddest of states, and Scott’s district, which runs from north of Myrtle Beach to just south of Charleston, is a hotbed of tea party Republicanism. That demographic is one reason that Scott is able to maintain a purer brand of conservatism than some of the other 86 House freshmen. At a town-hall meeting in January, Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina said he was “embarrassed” by members of his class who campaigned one way and voted another. He and Scott are part of a group that has managed to stand by what they say, Mulvaney boasted.
“There’s about 20 of us,” Mulvaney told National Journal. “We are going to remind the people that business as usual is how we got where we got. We are going to continue to be a thorn in the side of anyone, including our leadership, who wants to continue on the status quo.” Mulvaney said that the true believers can function as the moral conscience of the party because they don’t care about committee assignments, fundraisers, or reelection.
Scott’s ideology is closely aligned with tea party principles, but he holds a different place in the conference than other members of this so-called apocalypse caucus. He has managed to be both an ideological tea party hero and a congressional insider: He is a deputy whip and a freshman-class liaison to the leadership, and he sits on the powerful Rules Committee. Mulvaney, on the other hand, doesn’t even get invited to GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy’s morning bike rides.
“Tim is closer to leadership than we are because he is at the table,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, another freshman Republican from South Carolina. “He has more of an opportunity than we’ve had because of his role. The future for Tim Scott is whatever Tim Scott wants it to be.”
In his short tenure in Congress, Scott has already begun laying the groundwork. He has quickly become one of the House leaders on antiunion legislation, pushing a handful of bills attacking the National Labor Relations Board. Although the issue may not have enormous national resonance, it is huge in South Carolina, a so-called right-to-work state that came into conflict with the NLRB in a fight to maintain a Boeing plant last year.
Earlier this year, Scott launched a leadership PAC aimed at aimed at increasing the Republican Party’s diversity (he is quick to note: not just racial diversity) that will insert him into elections nationwide and broaden his name recognition. This comes on the heels of his town-hall series before South Carolina’s Republican primary in which he hosted seven of the eight major presidential candidates (Ron Paul did not participate) in front of packed crowds throughout his district. “What other freshman can you imagine hosting a must-attend event for presidential nominees?” McCarthy asked. “It’s incredible.”
Just four years ago, Scott was sitting on the Charleston County Council. And four years from now, he may make another big leap, if DeMint follows through on his promise to retire from the Senate.
“The House is training for whatever the good Lord has for me next,” Scott said. “I know that this is not the end itself. I would hope that no one aspires to stay in the House for 30 years or 20 years.… I know where I’m supposed to be three and a half years from now.”
This article appears in the March 31, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.