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.
“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.”
“When I think about tax policy, I don’t think [about] it simply through the prism of spending too much as a country. I think about it as having too little to spend as a family,” he says. “My mom was raising two kids on four or five dollars an hour, so every penny that she didn’t have was an incredibly valuable penny. So to me, tax reform that simplifies and empowers the individual is good for the community. . . . It’s good for the state. It’s good for the nation. It’s most importantly good for the person, because they get to keep more of their resources so they can be autonomous to the largest extent possible.”
His rhetoric has a Tea Party flavor, and that’s no surprise. Scott was one of South Carolina’s “Four Horsemen” of the Tea Party, a group that includes congressmen Mick Mulvaney, Trey Gowdy, and Jeff Duncan. Gowdy, Scott says, remains his “best friend,” and he still shares a house on Capitol Hill with Duncan. (“He thinks he’s a better basketball player than he is,” laughs Duncan.)
In the House, Scott had a consistently conservative record on the fiscal issues that gave rise to the Tea Party, supporting tax cuts, opposing increased government spending, and voting for a balanced budget amendment. Among that conservative freshman class of 2010, Scott rarely voted against the GOP conference and was a favorite of the leadership. He says he still speaks regularly to House majority leader Eric Cantor and majority whip Kevin McCarthy.
In the Senate, Scott has kept a relatively low profile, voting with his party more than 90 percent of the time. He spoke for two minutes during Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster in March but has yet to give his first major floor speech. Wyoming’s John Barrasso, the Senate Republican policy committee chairman, says Scott is an active participant who “speaks his mind” in conference meetings.
“He’ll tell you what he thinks and he’ll ask questions,” says Barrasso, who speaks highly of Scott’s optimism. Barrasso asked Scott, whom he calls a “man of faith,” to give the invocation at a recent policy meeting. Scott, who isn’t married, is an active member and lay leader at the non-denominational Seacoast church in suburban Charleston.
Scott is unlikely to take on his predecessor Jim DeMint’s role as conservative standard-bearer. Nor does he seem eager to be pigeonholed as a bridge between his party and the black community, though he says he’d be happy to play a role if asked. South Carolina’s deep red politics means that, like DeMint with conservative causes and Lindsey Graham with national security, Scott has the freedom to stake out an identity all his own during his Senate tenure.
A former insurance agent and financial adviser, he talks a lot about fiscal discipline and sanity, but there’s more than money to his mission. Scott says he wants to spread the message of individual opportunity to those who haven’t heard it, just as John Moniz did for a wayward teenager more than 20 years ago.
“I set my life’s mission to positively infect the lives of a billion people with the message of hope,” Scott says. “I’ve been trying to find the ways to impact people and now policy with the notion of the power of thought and the power of the individual.”
Michael Warren, a 2012 Robert Novak journalism fellow, is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.