As South Carolina’s legislature prepares to debate removing the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds, Sen. Tim Scott is weighing in with state lawmakers in typical Scott fashion – quietly and behind the scenes.
“We’ve already started talking to some folks, just letting people know where we stand, and we’ll be talking around the state,” Scott, R-S.C., said of his lobbying effort to persuade state legislators to remove the flag. “It’s definitely a great opportunity to use your relationships as a way to infuse yourself into a conversation without taking over the conversation.”
The massacre inside Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and its aftermath has thrust Scott, the first elected African-American senator from the South since reconstruction, into the national spotlight. It’s a place that he’s studiously avoided in the past.
In Washington, Scott has been one of the Senate’s low-key members, making very few floor speeches, keeping hallway interviews with reporters cordial but brief, and keeping his appearances on national cable and network news shows to a minimum. Scott would rather be in Moncks Corner, S.C., than on “Meet the Press.”
“I made the decision to start slow on the national profile and go big at home,” he said in an interview in his private Capitol hideaway office.
“I don’t want anyone confused with my objectives,” he said. “My objective is not to be a national star. My goal is to be a state servant. To do so, we have consciously and intentionally turned down about 90-plus percent, and probably this last couple of weeks, maybe 99 percent, of national media.”
Part of that strategy was routed in Scott’s path to the Senate. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley elevated him from the House of Representatives in 2012 to fill the seat of Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who resigned to head the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
Scott’s profile has risen a little in the 114th Congress. He says he now feels more comfortable – and more entitled – in pushing his agenda and speaking his mind locally and nationally after winning the Senate seat outright in a special election last November.
“Part of the challenge of being an appointed official, you’re appointed by one,” he said. “When the citizens of your state or your district elect you, you have a voice based on their decision. So I’m definitely more comfortable representing the views and people of South Carolina.”
Scott’s increased profile coincides with his popularity in South Carolina.
He had an 83 percent approval rating among likely South Carolina Republican voters – higher than Haley’s 79 percent, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s 58.2 percent, and the state legislature’s 61 percent approval ratings in an April poll by Winthrop University.
“This is a good time to be Tim Scott in the Republican Party,” said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop political science professor. “He’ll be able to leverage his popularity.”
Huffmon believes that leverage was on display when Scott stood silently at Haley’s side last week when she called for the Confederate battle flag’s removal.
“A popular figure like Scott standing for the removal of the flag gives cover to legislators who fear backlash from a conservative base and applies pressure to other conservatives who are resisting bringing the flag down,” he said.
From his new seats on the Senate’s Finance and Banking committees, Scott is pushing his “opportunity agenda,” a legislative recipe with tax cuts and reduced government regulation.
He’s been one of Congress’ leading advocates for federal funding to help local law enforcement agencies pay for body cameras for their officers, testifying before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in May following the fatal shooting of unarmed Walter Scott (no relation) by a police officer in North Charleston, S.C.
A Senate Appropriations Committee bill crafted earlier this month included $20 million for body cameras. Scott’s interested in getting more.
“If we could get $100 million a year for a couple of years, five years, that would be better. If we end up with $50 million a year, that’s great, too,” he said. “I believe three years from now, five years from now, we won’t have this conversation because standard issue on your uniform will be a body camera of some sort. I’m trying to find a way we can get there soon.”
He’s also poised to be a player in the presidential election as host of “Tim’s Town Halls,” events in which he hopes to bring in all the 2016 presidential candidates ahead of the South Carolina primary. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee will be Scott’s first guest next month.
Recently ranked the least bipartisan senator in a survey by Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, Scott has confounded critics by forming alliances with Democratic senators on issues where they share common ground.
He’s working with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., the Senate’s other African-American member, to promote a bill aimed at easing high minority youth unemployment by offering tax credits for hiring apprentices. Their bill is modeled after the Apprenticeship Carolina program.
“He was the kind of guy I met right away and knew he would be a friend and someone I could work with,” Booker said.
Not everyone shares Booker’s view. The national office of the NAACP has consistently given Scott an “F” on its legislative report card, saying his voting record runs counter to the interests of the poor and minorities.
Last year, the Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP chapter, likened Scott to a “ventriloquist’s dummy” that “articulates the agenda of the tea party.”
Hilary Shelton, head of the civil right organization’s Washington bureau, said Scott’s office has consistently rebuffed his requests for meetings with the senator.
Scott’s office disputes Shelton’s claim and insists that “my door is open.”
“I have no animus toward anyone,” Scott said. “I think hyperbolic conversation does not suggest a real desire for a relationship on their part, I think that’s pretty clear.”