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.