Timothy Eugene Scott was growing up poor and black in Charleston, S.C., the son of a nurse’s aide who worked 16-hour shifts, when Strom Thurmond, who ran for president as the standard-bearer for segregationists, was at the peak of his powers in the Senate.
On Monday, the congressman was named to fill the office once held by Thurmond (R), making him the first black Republican to serve in the Senate since Edward Brooke of Massachusetts lost his bid for reelection in 1978. It also makes him the first African American senator from the South since Reconstruction and only the seventh black person ever to serve in that chamber. Gov. Nikki Haley (R) selected him to succeed Jim DeMint (R), who is retiring.
The appointment propels Scott, 47, into the front ranks of a Republican Party trying to demonstrate that it can speak to a broader, non-white constituency. He joins Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Sen.-elect Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in putting a more diverse face on the GOP.
“It is a great day for South Carolina. It is a historic day for South Carolina,” said Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants who broke her own ground as the state’s first female governor, speaking at the statehouse in Columbia.
As the only black U.S. senator, Scott will become one of the most visible and important conservative figures in the country, one whose new prominence will require him to navigate a new set of political realities.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R), the state’s senior senator, advised Scott that the way to deal with that is to stay true to himself.
“You got here by being Tim Scott — not Lindsey Graham, not Jim DeMint,” Graham said after Haley announced her pick. “You have a unique opportunity for the conservative cause. You have unique burdens.”
Scott credited the mentoring of a Charleston businessman and the tough love of his mother. “I am thankful to the good Lord and a strong mom who believes love has to come at the end of a switch,” he said.
His rise to the Senate would be historic had it happened anywhere in the Deep South. That he has come to power in South Carolina — home to an especially brutal tradition of racially charged politics and where the Confederate flag still flies in front of the statehouse — gives the story even more resonance.
But state political observers said Monday that Scott’s voting record and close tea party ties made him an unsurprising selection to succeed DeMint, a godfather of the conservative insurgency who is leaving the Senate to head the Heritage Foundation. Others Haley reportedly considered include Reps. Trey Gowdy and Joe Wilson, and former state first lady Jenny Sanford.
“In terms of temperament and philosophy, he was a natural choice,” Robert Oldendick, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina, said of Scott.
Conservative leaders hailed the appointment. “Kudos to Governor Haley for choosing a proven fiscal conservative to continue the legacy set by Jim DeMint,” FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe said in a statement. “We are confident that Tim Scott will be a leading voice to advance the principles of individual freedom and limited-government, and he will be an excellent addition to a growing caucus of fiscal conservatives in the Senate.”
At Monday’s announcement, Scott sounded every bit the tea party stalwart.
“Our nation finds itself in a situation where we need some backbone,” he said. “If you have a problem with spending, there’s not enough revenue to make up for it.”
Scott is accustomed to breaking barriers. His 1995 election to the Charleston County Council made him the first African American Republican to hold any state office since 1902. That led to him serving as state co-chairman of Thurmond’s final Senate campaign, in 1996.
He moved to the state legislature in 2008 and two years later beat Thurmond’s son and Carroll Campbell III, the son of a former governor, in the Republican primary for the state’s 1st Congressional District.
As a freshman, he joined the call to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and opposed an increase in the federal debt ceiling. He is a steadfast supporter of gun rights who received a 92 percent voting rating from the National Rifle Association.
Oldendick said Scott has advanced by remaining faithful to the tea party agenda.
“We talk about Barack Obama transcending race. I think Tim Scott does that on his side. He’s able to vote conservatively without offending people,” he said.
Scott’s highest-profile moment until Monday was probably a two-minute speech at the Republican National Convention.
“Let me close by giving President Obama a heartfelt message from the good people of South Carolina,” he said, before bursting into a sort of half-song, half-chant: “Hit the road, Jack! And don’t you come back no more, no more, no more!”
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which Scott declined to join when he arrived in Washington, praised Scott as a colleague. “I like Tim Scott,” Cleaver said Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “Because he’s a good guy. He doesn’t say crazy things, he doesn’t attack people with nasty labels.”
That said, Cleaver added, he does not expect Scott to depart from DeMint on the issues. “Tim Scott is going to have essentially the same policies DeMint had,” he said.
Scott comes to national prominence with a remarkable personal story of resilience and good fortune. In an essay on his 2010 campaign Web site, he said he was flunking out of high school as a ninth-grader.
“I found myself in a position where I felt like the future was nonexistent,” Scott said. A year later, he met John Moriz, a conservative businessman who ran a Chick-fil-A restaurant where Scott ate when he worked at a movie theater next door.
“One day he came down to the movie theater and slid a Chick-fil-A sandwich across the desk. John was smart enough to know that food is a good way to start a conversation with a kid who likes to eat,” Scott said. Over the next few years, he said, Moriz, who is now deceased, taught him about self-reliance and individual responsibility.
“John transformed my way of thinking, which changed my life. It was interesting, because the lessons that John was teaching me were maybe simple lessons, but they were profound lessons,” Scott said. He eventually attended Presbyterian College on a partial football scholarship and graduated from Charleston Southern University. He worked in insurance and real estate before entering politics.
Scott will have to work hard to hang on to the Senate seat. He will face a special election in 2014 for the final two years of DeMint’s term, and if he wins, another race in 2016 for a full six-year term.