The Magazine

The Tea Partier’s Progress

From the House to the Senate.

Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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When Republican senator Tim Scott addresses an audience, he paces back and forth on the stage. He doesn’t use notes or look at a teleprompter. He punctuates with his hands, pointing his index finger outward or turning his palms upward. He looks and sounds like a revivalist preacher or a motivational speaker. When he asks his audience a question, he expects to hear an answer.

Tim Scott

Tim Scott with South Carolina high school students on the Capitol steps


“You want to listen to a quick story?” he asked the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month. They did, so he told one.

In the summer of 1982, Scott was a 16-year-old rising high school senior living in North Charleston with his single mother and his brother (his father left home when Scott was 7). A popular kid, Scott was student government president and, more important, a football star. “In my own mind,” he joked with the CPAC crowd. In an interview a few weeks after the conference, he was more critical of his teenaged self. “I was pretty intoxicated with myself,” he told me.

One morning that summer, Scott nodded off at the wheel of his mother’s brown Toyota Corolla hatchback. When he came to, he was speeding down the busy highway. Panicking, he slammed on the brakes and jerked the steering wheel. The car rolled several times, finally landing in a ditch. Lying inside the car with broken glass in his back and rear end, Scott could hear people talking as they ran toward the wreckage.

“I think he’s dead!” yelled one woman. “I think he’s dead!”

Scott yelled back, “I’m dead! I’m dead!”

He remembers a highway patrolman bending down to comfort him as the emergency medical team came to pull him out. “Son, your momma’s going to be happy you’re alive,” the officer said.

“Sir, you don’t know my momma,” Scott replied. “She’s going to kill me.”

He missed most of the football season, which meant any college scholarship opportunities for him dried up. “Not playing football for six or seven weeks was like not breathing for six or seven weeks. It was my life,” Scott says. “I think the good Lord used that in a powerful way to teach me .  .  . that I was so self-absorbed with trying to find me and being popular and being successful that I missed the real value of being significant and not just successful.”

His personal transformation was already in progress. A couple of years before his accident, Scott had befriended a local businessman, John Moniz, who was one of the most successful Chick-fil-A operators in the country. Throughout high school, Moniz served as a mentor to Scott, teaching him that football stardom wasn’t the only, or even the best, path to success in life. “He taught me you could actually think your way out of poverty,” he says. But it wasn’t until Moniz died young while Scott was in college that he says the full meaning of his mentor’s lessons about personal responsibility came into focus. Scott says his car wreck and Moniz’s death were important events in his life. Two decades later, he’d have another.

In 2010, Scott was one of two black Republicans elected to the House, along with Florida’s Allen West. While redistricting and a confrontational style made West a one-term phenomenon, voters in the 70-percent white district that stretches from Hilton Head to Charleston reelected Scott with nearly two-thirds of their votes in 2012. The 47-year-old Republican was on his way to a successful career in the lower house of Congress.

But soon after Election Day, Jim DeMint, South Carolina’s conservative senator, abruptly announced he was resigning his seat two years into his second term to take over as president of the Heritage Foundation. Governor Nikki Haley appointed Scott to replace DeMint in the Senate, making him the first black senator from the Deep South since Reconstruction. He’ll have to run in 2014 for the last two years of DeMint’s term, but there are no signs of serious opposition.

It’s been a relatively rapid rise for Scott, who served 13 years on the Charleston County council and one term in the statehouse before his first election to Congress. In some respects, he still yearns for the life of the local politician. “When you went to the Walmarts and the Piggly Wigglys, you ran into your boss on the floor, in the aisles,” he told me. “And that teaches you a lot about public service.” The sorts of issues a county councilor deals with—law enforcement, land use, conservation—translate to the national stage, he added.

Scott draws more from his Charleston past than just his political experience. Growing up poor gives him a perspective, he says, on what struggling families are facing. In his view, conservative economic policy ought to be about providing opportunity for the “least among these.”

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