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House GOP Favorite Tim Scott Is Ready For What Comes Next

Tim Scott has quickly become a favorite of the House GOP leadership. But he may not be in the House for long.

Tim Scott in his office Wednesday, March 21, 2012.
National Journal
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Ben Terris
March 29, 2012, 11 a.m.

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.”

(RE­LATED: Who Will Re­place Jim De­Mint?)

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.

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.

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.”

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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.

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.”

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.”

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.” 

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