Tim Scott’s frustrating and fated fight for police reform: ‘This is my issue’
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott answered his cell phone, grateful to hear from someone who wasn’t asking him for anything.
It had been a long Wednesday for South Carolina’s junior Republican senator.
From the moment he woke up, he was ricocheting across Washington: Prayer breakfast to press conference; committee hearing to media interviews; floor votes to a rare floor speech.
All the while, his phone kept ringing as he tried to build momentum for a police reform package he hoped would change America — all of America.
It was perhaps the second-longest Wednesday of his life.
The longest will always be June 17, 2015, the day a white supremacist walked into Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church and opened fire on 12 African Americans, killing nine.
On that terrible night, Scott called Trey Gowdy. On this Wednesday exactly five years later, Gowdy called Scott.
The senator was exhausted. It was hours after he introduced the Justice Act, his massive bill responding to a national reckoning over police brutality and systemic racism.
His voice was raw, and he needed encouragement.
“They can’t do it without you,” Gowdy, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina and Scott’s closest friend, said. “You can do it without them.”
There was silence on the other end of the line as Scott absorbed the statement, but Gowdy recalled, “I could hear him smiling.”
A national time of calling
As the Senate’s only Black Republican, Scott wields unique political power, but especially in this moment. While leading his party’s most ambitious policing proposal in years, he bears a burden that his white Republican colleagues will never fully understand.
In an unprecedented political season of nationwide protests, in the middle of a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted communities of color and with just months to go until a presidential election, Scott is in the middle of it all.
When protests erupted after the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a groundswell of public support for police reform in America followed.
Massive gatherings for racial justice cropped up across the country. Anguish, anger and grief spilled out into the streets in large metros like Washington, D.C., and in small towns like Solebury, Pa., population 8,558.
It became a movement on a scale not seen in America since the decades-long struggle for civil rights for African Americans to gain equal rights under the law.
Democrats dominated the airwaves.
Scott recognized the moment sooner than the rest of his party. On June 3, he approached Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell at a closed-door Republican luncheon and asked to write his party’s bill — their response — on police reform. Scott’s pitch was direct: He told McConnell he is the only Republican senator who has experienced racial profiling and discrimination.
Scott, 54, estimates he has been pulled over more than 18 times in the past 20 years for no other reason than “driving while Black.”
He broached the subject in 2016 in a series of speeches on the Senate floor.
Recently, he spoke to The Post and Courier, recalling to the very date the first time he was pulled over by law enforcement: June 5, 1987.
Almost exactly 33 years after that first police stop, McConnell agreed to give Scott the lead on the Republican’s police reform push.
The death of his bill
As the Senate votes came in this past Wednesday afternoon, it became clear that Scott’s Justice Act was destined to die.
Just two Democrats — Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — and one independent, Argus King of Maine, had crossed over to support Scott’s bill.
Scott, who for weeks had been saying his measure was not about November politics, suddenly found himself and his legislation in the center of a partisan fight during a major presidential election year.
The vote failed 55-45.
Afterward, an incredulous and visibly frustrated Scott found himself on the Senate floor tearing into Democrats in a 33-minute, 51-second speech.
He said he offered Democrats 20 amendments to make the bill better. He said they walked out when he tried to find compromise. Pushing back about questions raised about the credibility of the bill, Scott took it personally.
“The actual problem is not what is being offered, it is who is offering it. It took me a long time to figure out the most obvious thing in the room,” Scott said.
After the president said there were “fine people” on “both sides” of a neo-Nazi, white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Va., Scott met with Trump in a one-on-one meeting at the White House.
He walked out with the president’s full support for his Opportunity Zones legislation to help revitalize economically distressed communities.
He tried again, and found the president to be supportive of permanent funding for historically Black colleges and universities, as well as stem-cell research for sickle cell anemia, a disease that disproportionately impacts people of color.
In an interview, Scott said he considers himself to be “an eternal optimist,” but he made a concession.
“I’m typically wrong on the timeline,” he said.
When Scott was elected student government president in high school, he tried to change his corner of the world in North Charleston.
“I was going to solve race relations then. I was going to make sure we all saw each other as equal and that life would be perfect in five years,” Scott said.
He tried to laugh it off, but his gaze fell downward. He shook his head.
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