TIM SCOTT IS not a type-A personality, which makes interviewing him an interesting experience. So many members of Congress lean forward in their chairs, spit words forcefully and rapidly, shuffle in late and then duck out early, headed toward the next vote, the next speech, the next fundraiser.
Scott leans back in his chair, legs crossed, hands folded. He’s a master of the deadpan delivery, so his jokes are all the funnier in that they arrive unannounced. He speaks leisurely and thoughtfully, as if imparting hard-earned wisdom or sharing a story over a cup of hot cocoa. And Scott does have a story to tell—which starts, as he says, with growin’ up po’.
“Not poor, po’. Could not afford the O-R,” he says, flashing his trademark grin, the one so broad it shows the gums above his top teeth. “I smile now, but I wasn’t smiling then.” After her divorce, Scott’s mother moved the family into her parents’ two-bedroom, one-bathroom house. His grandparents shared one bedroom, and he, his mother, and his brother shared the other. “It was hard times but it was great times, because one of the things that my grandmother did was she filled the house with love and discipline.”
But by high school, he was struggling, failing four classes at once, and, by his own account, more interested in football than academics. “Growing up in North Charleston in a single-parent household, I’ll tell you that—for me—it seemed like the only way out of poverty for a kid like me was either athletics or entertainment,” Scott says. “There weren’t any other options.”
It was a Chick-Fil-A franchisee named John Moniz who showed him how to think his way out of poverty. Scott would buy French fries at the restaurant (“because he had some really cute girls that worked there,” he explains). Moniz took an interest in the young man; the two struck up a conversation, then another. Scott says Moniz changed his worldview. Instead of seeing problems as external and out of his control, he began to seek solutions within himself.
There’s a bit of Christian self-help about the way Scott speaks. Moniz had introduced him to the work of Zig Ziglar, and in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, he quoted John C. Maxwell. Scott says things like, “You can be a victim or a victor,” and “When you find your ‘why,’ you find your way.”
Moniz died of a blood clot in 1985, at the age of 37. Scott was just 19, and he vowed to honor Moniz’s memory with the way he lived his life. The day before the funeral, he drafted a personal mission statement: to positively impact a billion people with a message of hope and financial responsibility. He wrote it down in blue ink on a three-by-five notecard. He still has it.
AFTER TAKING A degree in political science at Charleston Southern University, Scott got into the insurance business. He built his own Allstate agency from the ground up—selling the whole portfolio: auto, life, health, property, casualty, home, renter’s—that, at its peak, employed about eight people.
Scott’s first foray into public life came in 1995, when he ran for and was elected to Charleston County Council. He made headlines shortly thereafter when he led the council in posting a plaque of the Ten Commandments outside its chambers, knowing full well that a costly lawsuit likely lay in store. “I wouldn’t say money is not a concern, but it costs more for us not to have a moral compass,” Scott told the Associated Press at the time. After a battle with the ACLU, a circuit judge ruled the move unconstitutional and ordered the plaque removed, but Scott clearly hasn’t changed his mind: a copy of the Ten Commandments hangs on the wall in his office even today.
Scott spent more than a decade on county council, after which his rise was nothing short of meteoric. Following the retirement of an incumbent state legislator, Scott won a seat in the statehouse in 2008. Another retirement brought a hard-fought battle for a U.S. House seat, which Scott won in 2010. Then in December of last year, Jim DeMint, the state’s beloved two-term Tea Party senator, announced he was retiring to lead the Heritage Foundation. South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, had the power to appoint a successor, but a week went by, and Scott convinced himself that it would not be him. Then the call came at about 5 p.m. on Sunday night.
The announcement was made the next day, December 17, and on January 3, 2013, Scott was sworn in. Then came the transition. Scott moved out of his House office and into a larger Senate one, beefed up his staff from about 15 to 40, opened district offices back home, and held an official event in each of South Carolina’s 46 counties. “Essentially,” he says, “it’s like starting a brand new company.”
BECAUSE SCOTT WAS appointed to the Senate, South Carolina law requires that he face voters during the next election. Thus, Scott will be on the ballot in 2014 to win the final two years of DeMint’s term, and again in 2016, to win a first term of his own. So far, however, no Republican challengers have emerged. (Lindsey Graham, the Palmetto State’s senior senator, will also be on next year’s ballot, and has already drawn three challengers from the right.)
It’s not difficult to see why Scott has quickly become a beloved figure in the GOP. He’s a magnetic speaker, and his 15-minute speech at this year’s CPAC was, in this correspondent’s opinion, one of the finest. He’s a social conservative and an evangelical Christian who tells me he tries every day to be “a consistent witness of the faithfulness of a risen savior.” And during his time in both chambers of Congress, he built a strong conservative record. Voting against a raise in the debt ceiling last year. Fighting the National Labor Relations Board (“a rogue agency running amok”). Opposing the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill. (“There’s no doubt that we are a land of immigrants. But we are also a land of laws.”)
But the topic he seems to want to talk about most during our interview is education. “It’s very difficult to have real economic empowerment without a solid foundation of education,” he says. Scott supports charter schools and expresses skepticism that one brand of centrally directed public education can adequately serve all of America. But he says the conversation needs to go beyond that, and that everything should be on the table. He even suggests what is every self-respecting schoolboy’s worst nightmare: the abolition of summer break.
The Asian students who dominate fields like science, engineering, and math, Scott points out, spend many more days in school than do Americans. “So can we do in 180 days what other kids are doing in 243 days?” he asks. “Well, 63 days over 10 years, it makes a difference.” (With a proposal like that, we joke, he’s lucky the voting age is 18.)
The American debate over education is shot through with discussions of race: the history of forced busing, white flight from cities, the black-white education gap. But that’s not Scott’s focus. He doesn’t talk about fixing our urban schools; he talks about fixing all our schools.
As a rule, Scott wants nothing to do with Democratic racial politics—and he never has. When running for Charleston County Council at the age of 29, he told that city’s newspaper of record, the Post and Courier, that he didn’t consider himself a “black Republican,” but instead a “Republican who happens to be black.” The next year, 1996, he served as statewide co-chairman of Sen. Strom Thurmond’s re-election campaign. When asked recently how he could’ve worked for a man who’d once run for president on a Dixiecrat platform of segregation, Scott told the New York Times that Thurmond had repented: “The Strom Thurmond I knew had nothing to do with that.” After being elected to the House in 2010, Scott declined to join the Congressional Black Caucus, saying in a statement that “My campaign was never about race.”
Thus, Scott has little sympathy for others’ racial politics. When the Supreme Court struck down portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act this summer, Scott sent out a statement celebrating the occasion. He points out the absurd heights to which federal officials have taken their oversight and says it results in wasted money. In January, for instance, the Justice Department sent an attorney from its civil rights division to monitor a city council special election in Branchville, S.C.—a town with roughly 800 eligible voters.
I ask Scott whether he ever gets sick of having these conversations, of being asked what it’s like to be (if you’ll pardon the phrase, Senator) a black Republican. He handles the questions deftly. First, a bit of disarming humor: “Most people want to know what it’s like to be a bald Republican,” he says.
Then a humble demurral: “Our country has been fascinated by race since the existence of the country. It’s been part and parcel of who we are. So it would be silly of me to say that, oh, I’m sick and tired of talking about race. Because we’re going to talk about race for the next 50 years as well.”
And then, finally, the strong, opinionated finish: “Do I like talking about race as a predominant factor in elections? Of course not. That’s why I think the VRA decision was an important one. Because life has changed over the last 40 years, especially in South Carolina. I’m only here because voters have changed and evolved as well.”