Tim Scott, Once Quiet on Matters of Race, Embraces Key Role on Police Reform

WASHINGTON — Senator Tim Scott has spent much of his career trying to avoid letting the color of his skin define his political identity, keeping a line at the ready to offer to new acquaintances: “I am a Christian who is a conservative,” he likes to say, “— and you may have noticed, I’m black.”

But when protests for racial justice erupted across the nation this month, thrusting Republicans onto the defensive as the public clamored for action to address systemic racism in policing, it was Mr. Scott who marched up to Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, and asked to write his party’s legislative response. The two men agreed that there was no one better for the job.

The offer, which set in motion the hasty drafting of legislation that Mr. Scott plans to unveil on Wednesday, was the culmination of a subtle transformation for the South Carolina Republican over the past five years. Once determined to make his name on issues like tax cuts and entrepreneurship, rather than his historic status as the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction, Mr. Scott has bit by bit — sometimes reluctantly — become a leader in his party on matters of race.

Mr. Scott, who is frequently described as an eternal optimist guided by his faith, has an exceedingly difficult task. He is trying to balance calls from police unions who are resisting changes and civil rights groups that are clamoring for it, as well as conservative members of his own party and liberals like Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey and the only other black man in the Senate. He has been quietly keeping Mr. Trump abreast of his work.

Mr. Scott has made clear the bill he plans to introduce Wednesday will look quite different from that of Democrats, which would make it easier to prosecute and hold police officers liable for excessive use of force, outlaw chokeholds, and condition federal grants on anti-bias training and data collection. He has signaled that the reforms in his bill will largely be targeted at the local level, and has explicitly ruled out a Democratic measure to change qualified immunity, which shields police officers from being held legally liable for damages sought by citizens whose constitutional rights are found to have been violated.

Raised by a single mother who worked 16-hour days as a nurse’s aide, Mr. Scott grew up sharing a bedroom with his mother and older brother. He did not see the ocean, which carried his ancestors to the United States as slaves in the early 1800s, until he was a young man.

Mr. Scott has said the trajectory of his life began to change in high school, when he met the owner of a local Chick-fil-A who pushed Mr. Scott, then a high school football star, toward business, laying the foundation for his later embrace of the Republican Party and Mr. Scott’s personal mission statement: to have an impact on the lives of one billion people.

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