Wednesday | July 1, 2020

Tim Scott Didn’t Ask For This

South Carolina’s junior senator didn’t set out to have a political career defined by his race. But his unique perspective has made him perhaps the most influential legislator in the Trump era.

Tim Scott was frustrated.

Just days earlier, Senate Democrats had blocked—in his mind, for purely political reasons—the police reform legislation he had spent the better part of his career thinking about, and the better part of June scrambling to put into legalese. It would have been a legacy-defining moment—not that he cares much about such things—and provided Republicans another message with which to make inroads into the black community before November.

Joining CNN’s State of the Union to discuss the JUSTICE Act’s failure, he could barely muster a perfunctory “good to be back with you” before Jake Tapper opened the conversation. “President Trump just retweeted a video this morning featuring one of his apparent supporters shouting, ‘white power.’ … What’s your reaction to the president retweeting that?” 

Scott’s characteristic smile was gone, and any remnant of it had drained from his eyes. “Well, there’s no question he should not have retweeted it,” he said matter-of-factly. “And he should just take it down.”

‘I am a Christian, who is a conservative, and you may have noticed that I’m black.’

Scott—the lone black Republican in the Senate, and the only black person in either party to ever serve in both chambers of Congress—did not set out in the mid-1990s to have a political career defined by his race. Former Rep. Trey Gowdy—Scott’s best friend in Washington—shared with me the go-to introduction South Carolina’s junior senator has come to deploy: “I am a Christian, who is a conservative, and you may have noticed that I’m black.” But like most Americans with Tim’s complexion, that last part of his identity has often drowned out the other two—whether he wants it to or not.

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Most up-and-coming politicians would have relished the attention. West certainly did. But not Tim Scott. “I quickly decided that I did not want to become the guy who represents ‘the conservative black perspective’ on every issue,” he wrote. He declined to join the Congressional Black Caucus, and he turned down repeat solicitations to run for House freshman class president—a race many of his peers thought he’d win unopposed if he’d entered. He didn’t seek high-profile committee placements either, beginning his career on the Small Business and Transportation committees.* “I think he was understandably resistant to simply be defined as someone that you come talk to when there’s a racial issue,” Gowdy told me.

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But in between those latter two campaigns, three months in 2015 changed Scott’s life.

Early in the morning of April 4, a white police officer named Michael Slager shot and killed an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, after a routine traffic stop. Slager lied about the encounter, telling a dispatcher Scott had stolen his Taser. A bystander’s video recording made clear that wasn’t the case; Slager was not in any danger when he pulled the trigger eight times while Scott, 50, was running away.

Tim and Walter Scott shared no relation. But they might as well have. The murder took place in the senator’s hometown of North Charleston—the city where his single mother, Frances Scott, worked 16-hour days changing bedpans in the hospital; where the lights and the phone in his home wouldn’t always turn on when he needed them; where he failed high school Spanish, English, and civics; where a car wreck ended his dreams of playing Division I football—and Scott was more heartbroken by Walter’s killing than he was surprised.

“The horrific video that came to light yesterday is deeply troubling,” he said in a statement at the time. “It is clear the killing of Walter Scott was unnecessary and avoidable.”

Less than three months later, a 21-year-old white supremacist—Dylann Roof—entered a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—Mother Emanuel—and, in the hopes of sparking a race war, gunned down eight black congregants and the church’s senior pastor, Clementa Pinckney. 

Pinckney was a friend of Scott’s.

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On July 13, 2016, Scott did something on the Senate floor he never could have imagined as a House freshman just a few years earlier: He shared his reality.

“In the course of one year, I’ve been stopped seven times by law enforcement officers. Not four. Not five. Not six. But seven times. In one year. As an elected official.” The pauses between his words felt longer than they were. “I recall walking into an office building just last year after being here for five years on the Capitol, and the officer looked at me—a little attitude—and said, ‘The pin, I know. You, I don’t. Show me your ID.’ … Later that evening I received a phone call from [the officer’s] supervisor apologizing for the behavior. Mr. President, that is at least the third phone call that I’ve received from a supervisor or the chief of police since I’ve been in the Senate.”

“There is absolutely nothing more frustrating, more damaging to your soul than when you know you’re following the rules and being treated like you are not,” Scott said. He pleaded with his colleagues: “Recognize that just because you do not feel the pain, the anguish of another, does not mean that it does not exist.”

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A sliding doors moment in the Palmetto State.

If it weren’t for a handful of Democrats running for the Charleston County Council 25 years ago, Scott’s career could have been a whole lot more conventional—and a whole lot less impactful. He was a successful businessman in Charleston—he owned his own Allstate agency—when he began thinking about a career in public service. The local Democratic Party told him to “get in line.” The Republican Party? “We’d love to see you run.”

“There’s no doubt that number one, philosophically, I’m a Republican,” Scott told me. “I was then, I am now. But everybody that I knew that was African American was a Democrat. So my natural inclination was at least to give it a shot.”

Does he wish more black politicians made the choice he did, forever losing the ‘lone black Republican in the Senate’ tagline included in every story about him? “Misery loves company.” I could hear his smile through the phone. “I welcome all to come and have some of this! That would be awesome!”

But one quarter-century and a national political career later, he’s happy with his decision. “Sometimes you gotta thank God when they say no,” he said with a laugh. “Had I been a Democrat—even if I was lucky enough to somehow convince South Carolina voters to vote for me as a Democrat—then my relationship with the White House would have been completely different now. … I find myself having access to the president when I need it the most, and when I want it usually.”

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Full article here.


By:  Declan Garvey
Source: The Dispatch
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