Tim Scott: conservative black voice on police reform

Tim Scott’s career can be described as a series of firsts.

The first black Republican to hold elected office in South Carolina since the Reconstruction era. The first black Republican senator from the US South in more than 125 years. The first and only black lawmaker to serve in both the US House and Senate.

But the 54-year-old senator, who has been in the limelight since he approached Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell about leading the Republican efforts on police reform, has still had to defend himself against the accusation that he is being used by his predominantly white party.

“Not surprising the last 24 hours have seen a lot of ‘token’, ‘boy’ or ‘you’re being used’ in my mentions,” Mr Scott said on Twitter this month.

“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 added.

The only black Republican senator has spoken candidly about his own experiences of being racially profiled, including instances involving US Capitol police.

Recently, when Dick Durbin, the Democrat from Illinois, described Mr Scott’s Justice Act, which includes more federal funding for body cameras and training in the de-escalation of force, as a “token, halfhearted approach”, Mr Scott replied emotionally on the Senate floor.

“Perhaps I am African-American, and I am the only one on the other side of the aisle. I don’t know what he meant. But I can tell you that this day, to have those comments, again hurts the soul,” Mr Scott said. Mr Durbin later apologised.

It was an impassioned display from a senator who, in his decade on Capitol Hill, has often been reluctant to discuss issues relating to race. But Mr Scott now finds himself at the frontline of a battle between Republicans and Democrats over how to reform policing practices following civil unrest over the killing of George Floyd.

Democratic senators on Wednesday blocked debate on Mr Scott’s proposals, casting doubt on whether Congress will agree on new restrictions ahead of November’s presidential elections. Democrats passed their own bill on Thursday in the House of Representatives, which overlaps with the Republican plan but goes further in restricting police chokeholds and “no-knock” warrants.

In 2010, when he won a competitive Republican congressional primary race against Paul Thurmond, the son of segregationist Strom Thurmond, Mr Scott told a local newspaper: “The relevance of me being black is really, fortunately irrelevant. The voters voted for a guy who they felt represented their values and their issues and their philosophy.”

But Mr Scott, who is an evangelical Christian, has become more vocal on race-related issues in recent years, especially after two tragedies in the Charleston area in 2015. In April of that year, Walter Scott, a black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer in North Charleston who had pulled him over because of a broken brake light. Two months later, Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, killed nine black worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Since then, Mr Scott — who was once deemed by the low-tax Club for Growth to be one of the most conservative members of Congress — has teamed up with his African-American colleagues across the aisle, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, to introduce anti-lynching legislation. With Mr Booker’s support, he also spearheaded the inclusion of “opportunity zones” in Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, providing tax breaks for investment in low-income areas.

On Sunday, Mr Scott called on Mr Trump to take down a video the president had retweeted which showed a supporter yelling “white power” at a protester, describing it as “indefensible”. The video was later removed.

Rob Godfrey, a former adviser to Nikki Haley, the Republican governor of South Carolina from 2011 to 2017, described Mr Scott, who was first elected to Congress in 2010 as part of the Tea Party movement, as both a “conservative fighter” and an “indispensable voice for common sense”.

“He never misses the opportunity to do something that may be more important, which is to bring people together in times of great need, in times of crisis, whether it is in the middle of what the country is going through now, or it is in the middle of a shooting that happened in his own backyard,” said Mr Godfrey.

Whit Ayres, president of North Star Opinion Research, a Republican pollster, agreed, describing Mr Scott as a “conservative who understands the importance of making pragmatic arguments to advance his cause”.

Marlon Kimpson, a Democratic state legislator in South Carolina who worked with Mr Scott on police reform in the state after Walter Scott’s killing, said while he could not condone Mr Scott’s support for Mr Trump, he was willing to give the Republican the “benefit of the doubt”.

“There are many who are highly critical of [Scott], and just can’t understand how he could be over there,” Mr Kimpson said, referring to Democrats who question why an African-American man from the South would choose to be a Republican.

“I vehemently disagree with a lot of his policy positions, especially those which are supportive of this president, but [African-Americans] are not monolithic, and some of us have different ways to reach their goals,” he added. “I do think he genuinely believes that the efforts he is making will make a positive impact in the black community.”

Mr Scott was raised by a single mother who worked 16-hour shifts as a nursing assistant in Charleston. He credits a local Chick-fil-A franchise owner with instilling in him conservative, pro-business values, and helping develop what he calls his personal mission statement: to “positively affect the lives of a billion people”.

A successful Allstate insurance salesman, he joined the Charleston county council in the mid-1990s before running for the state legislature in 2008 and Congress in 2010. Ms Haley appointed Mr Scott to the Senate in 2013. He won a special election in 2014, and another election in 2016. He will next seek re-election in 2022, while the senior senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, faces a Democratic challenger, Jaime Harrison, this November.

Mr Godfrey pointed to the ways in which Mr Scott differs from Mr Graham, a long-serving senator who has always sought the spotlight, whether as an ally of the late John McCain or more recently, when he made a U-turn to become one of the president’s fiercest allies.

“[Tim Scott] is not a senator who seeks the spotlight in the way Senator Graham does,” said Mr Godfrey. “But he is a senator whose message, whose story, is just as important, if not more important, than Senator Graham’s.”