Now — with the nation on edge and, in some places, in flames — he is in a prime position to do something about it.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other GOP leaders are counting on Scott to assemble legislation this week that at least begins to address an epidemic of impunity and pervasive racism in the criminal justice system that the party has long downplayed or ignored entirely.
The effort comes as Democrats have unveiled a sweeping bill of their own that is expected to pass the House later this month and as public opinion rapidly shifts in favor of action to hold police accountable for abuses in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
His race aside, the 54-year-old Scott is an odd choice to play the lead role in a Republican effort to address fundamental issues with law enforcement. A former small-business owner, he has focused much of his legislative effort on tax policy and entrepreneurial issues. He does not sit on the Judiciary Committee that handles criminal justice matters, but rather on the Finance, Banking and Small Business committees.
But in Scott, McConnell has tapped not only his conference’s lone black member, but one with trust and relationships that span the political spectrum, as well as a record of working diligently with colleagues to deliver significant victories — including playing a role in the passage of a bipartisan criminal justice bill in 2018.
“He’s a relatively young man whose wisdom, I think, is double his age,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), praising Scott’s quiet, collaborative and effective leadership style. “Anytime people like you, anytime people like working with you, it gets easier to get things done, and he’s someone everyone respects and likes here. . . . He’s ideally suited for this issue.”
Those talents stand to be strained, however, by the rapid effort to address centuries of American racism and redeem a string of failed legislative efforts dating back decades aiming to reform policing abuses at the federal level. And some have noted the irony of tapping the Senate’s only black Republican to address a problem rooted in the racism of the white majority.
Scott said Wednesday he had heard worse than that on social media after McConnell announced his new leadership role, including accusations of being a “token” or “used” by white Republicans.
“Let me get this straight . . . you DON’T want the person who has faced racial profiling by police, been pulled over dozens of times, or been speaking out for YEARS drafting this?” he tweeted.
In a brief interview Wednesday, Scott expanded on his frustration with “intra-discrimination” inside communities of color: “If you want us to root out racism on the other side, be careful on what you have in your own heart,” he said, pledging to assemble legislation that “brings our country together and solves some underlying issues.”
Scott brings a lifetime of credibility to the debate over racial bias in policing, starting with a childhood growing up poor in a single-parent household in North Charleston, S.C. After putting himself through college and building insurance and real estate businesses, Scott entered politics as a rare, unapologetic black conservative — and rocketed in the span of five years from the Charleston County Council to the U.S. Senate.
Less than a year and a half after joining the Senate, Scott’s hometown was rocked by a pair of racially explosive tragedies — the April 2015 videotaped killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man unrelated to the senator, by a North Charleston police officer, following by the June 2015 murders of nine African Americans at a historic Charleston church by a 21-year-old white supremacist.
Scott stood alongside other black leaders — virtually all Democrats — in South Carolina and shared his grief on the Senate floor. Later that year he introduced his first piece of policing legislation, the Walter Scott Notification Act of 2015, which would require states to track deadly shootings by police officers to receive federal law enforcement assistance grants and share the date with the FBI for publication. It attracted only one co-sponsor.
What Scott did not initially do was speak frankly about his own experiences with law enforcement. That changed on July 13, 2016, as the nation dealt with a fresh paroxysm of outrage over police shootings, as well as the targeting of police themselves by a gunman in Dallas.
Scott went to the Senate floor and described being repeatedly stopped by police officers over the course of his life — including seven times in one year — “the vast majority of the time . . . for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial.”
That profiling, he said, extended to Capitol Hill, where he recalled a Capitol Police officer stopping him after five years of congressional service and demanding to see ID, even though Scott was wearing his Senate pin.
“While I thank God I have not endured bodily harm, I have felt the pressure applied by the scales of justice when they are slanted,” he said, urging those who have not felt the sting of racism to empathize with those who have. “I have felt the anger, the frustration, the sadness and the humiliation that comes with feeling like you are being targeted for nothing more than being just yourself.”
According to an aide, that targeting has not abated since: Scott was most recently pulled over in April near his South Carolina home after an officer said he waited too long to signal a turn.
The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about the incident.
Scott’s prominence as a black Republican became even more fraught as Donald Trump began his rise to the presidency and made a series of racially insensitive comments — ranging from accusing a Mexican American judge of being biased against him because of the judge’s ethnicity to his 2017 defense of the racist Charlottesville protests.
Scott minced no words after that latter episode, declaring Trump’s comments “indefensible” and that his moral authority was “compromised.” The spectacle of having the only black Republican senator publicly criticizing the president prompted Trump to invite Scott to the White House for an Oval Office exchange that, according to Scott’s account, involved him educating Trump on “hate groups who over three centuries of this country’s history have made it their mission to create upheaval in minority communities as their reason for existence.”
The meeting ended amicably, however, and the two men have continued to enjoy a friendly relationship. Later that year, Scott left a significant stamp on Trump’s major domestic legislative achievement — the 2017 tax overhaul bill, which included the senator’s pet “opportunity zone” legislation meant to funnel investment into underprivileged communities.
Scott has, at times, dissented from the president — notably blocking two Trump judicial nominees because of racially problematic items in their background files. But Scott has otherwise heavily praised Trump’s economic record and continued to advocate inside the administration for more attention to minority communities, including at a White House visit last month.
“You’re helping people because they’re Americans, and you don’t care whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, whether they’re black or white, whether they’re up or they’re down, whether they’re rich or they’re poor,” he said to Trump there.
What remains to be seen is whether Scott will assemble legislation that Trump will ultimately support. The White House signaled tentative support for his efforts Wednesday, but Scott has insisted he is on a separate track from the administration. Meanwhile, Trump has continued tweeting unalloyed support for law enforcement, while outside parties influencing the president — notably Fox News host Tucker Carlson — are warning him against embracing any reform effort.
Scott pointed to his previous collaborations with Trump on opportunity zones and criminal justice reform as a model: “He’s said yes to the vast majority of the legislative proposals I’ve brought to him, and I’m appreciative of his support and I’m hoping that we get it this time.”
The tentative framework for Scott’s bill overlaps partially with the broader Democratic effort, which would institute a federal ban on police chokeholds and restrict “no-knock” search warrants, mandate a federal database of law enforcement misconduct, and allow private citizens to more easily sue abusive cops, among other measures.
Scott’s proposal, according to a summary circulated Tuesday on Capitol Hill, would adopt a less coercive approach, using the leverage of federal grant funding to encourage states and local jurisdictions to improve their training, track police misconduct, use body cameras and more.
“I basically shy away from telling local law enforcement, you shouldn’t do that or you can’t do this,” he told reporters Tuesday. “I would support some of the outcomes that [Democrats are] looking at. The way to get there, I would not.”
Democrats are viewing Scott’s efforts with cautious optimism. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of two African American Democrats in the Senate and a close friend of Scott, said Scott is bearing a burden that each black senator, regardless of party, has frequently had to shoulder when racial issues come to fore.
“We’re often the go-to people in our parties for a lot of issues,” he said. “It’s a tough burden always to have to be the person that is turned to, that has to carry these issues. You know, we’d get to a place of greater justice in America when more of us are speaking up . . . because we see other people’s justices and realities interwoven with our own.”
Booker recalled then-Senate Democratic Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) sending him a note of apology for having him repeatedly address the racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and the nascent Black Lives Matter movement inside private caucus meetings as the only black Democratic senator at the time. But Booker said Scott was capable of bearing that burden.
“Tim is an extraordinary human being,” he said. “We obviously disagree vastly on policy issues, but there have been more than one occasion that my staff and I have thanked God that he’s a United States senator.”
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) — the most powerful black politician on Capitol Hill and a fellow South Carolinian — said he was hopeful Scott would bring his personal history to bear on his fellow Republicans.
“We are no more or less than what our experiences allow us to be,” Clyburn said, referencing Scott’s vivid recounting of his encounters with police. “I would hope that those experiences that he’s had will inform him in carrying out his duties and responsibilities related to this, and if so, I think I’d be very pleased with what the result would be.”