The Washington Post

Tim Scott: Hardest part of being black in GOP? Always being asked, ‘what’s wrong with you?’

There was not nearly the same fanfare, media attention, or scrutiny as the first time around. But, for the second time in a year, a Republican senator made the trek from the Capitol building to the Howard University campus when Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) spoke to a group of about 100 business students Tuesday afternoon.

"I think it's my responsibility as a Republican to come to this place and have a conversation with you about why it is that I'm different." Scott said. "And what I hope [you] will do consistently is not judge a book by its cover and open the book and see what's in it."

(AP Photo/Grace Beahm, The Post And Courier)
(AP Photo/Grace Beahm, The Post And Courier)

Near the end of Scott's 45-minute session with the students, David Thomas, a junior studying political science, stepped up to the microphone. He apologized for his appearance -- he was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt when he saw the flier for the event earlier in the day. But when he spotted the "R" next to Scott's name, he said, he decided he had to attend the event and ask the senator why a black man would join the Republican party.

"I'm interested in hearing why you're a part of the Republican Party when most black politicians are Democrats," Thomas said. "It just really stood out to me."

After cracking a few jokes, Scott said that he owes his political affiliation in part to his first mentor, a conservative Chick-Fil-A owner named John Moniz, who Scott credits with turning his life around and encouraging him to enter the business world. Scott went on to add that he was also drawn to the GOP's stances on military funding and the fact that it includes elements of Christian faith in the official party platform.

"People ask me about if, being a Republican, you guys want to cut everything and stop everything and not help people," Scott said. "I find that patently false."

The senator's remarks at the historically black college --which follow a speaking tour he did at all of the historically black campuses in South Carolina -- were brief. For about 10 minutes, he hashed out his biography, walking students from his time as a failing high school student to an insurance salesman to a county government official to a congressman and then to a senator.

Scott's speech at Howard comes 10 months after tea party hero Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) addressed students in the same second floor auditorium where Scott appeared today -- both appearances have been considered part of the Republican Party's more broad attempts to make progress in communities of color.

Unlike Paul's speech, Scott's appearance was introductory in nature and contained no overarching sermon about conservative values.

"Part of the challenge of being a black Republican anywhere is that you start off with people walking in with chips on their shoulder trying to figure out what is wrong with you," Scott said when asked by a student if his political affiliation had made things hard for him since coming to D.C. "I hope that people will judge me on my agenda, what I say, and how I vote."

Those efforts come after 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney captured just 27 percent of Hispanic votes and a mere 6 percent of African American votes - two voting blocs forecast to continue to grow as a percentage of the electorate.

Before the Howard event, Scott joined four of the other nine black Americans to serve as U.S. senators at a panel held at the Library of Congress. Scott was joined there by his current Senate colleague Cory Booker (D-N.J.), as well as former senators Mo Cowan (D-Mass.), Roland Burris (D-Ill.) and Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.).

While the panelists teased Scott several times for being the only Republican among them, Cowan said that he hopes Scott is successful in his re-election bid later this year.

"I hope my friend here is successful in his campaign," Cowan said. "I love fact that the black experience is reflected on the other side of the aisle."

Wesley Lowery is a national reporter covering law enforcement and justice for the Washington Post. He previously covered Congress and national politics.

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