The appointment of Tim Scott, a Congressman from Charleston, South Carolina, to replace South Carolina’s outgoing Senator Jim DeMint, made history. The first black Senator from the South since Reconstruction (during Reconstruction, Mississippi sent two black Republican Senators – Blanche Bruce and Hiram Revels – to Washington), he ascended to the Senate after nearly twenty years in politics from South Carolina’s coastal region.
While Scott’s appointment has generated considerable praise from his home state, as well as national political observers, it’s safe to say that NAACP leader Benjamin Jealous isn’t among Scott’s admirers. In criticizing Scott, who received an “F” score on the political scorecard for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Jealous accused Scott of not supporting civil rights, saying:
We have Republicans who believe in civil rights — unfortunately he is not one of them – and unfortunately his party as you know, has really gone after so-called RINOs as they call them, these Republicans who believe in civil rights, again and again.
Jealous’s sentiments weren’t shared by Rep Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri House member who serves as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, who praised Scott’s appointment to the Senate:
As the only African American from the South to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction, Scott’s appointment this week is monumental for South Carolina, and for the Republican Party. Make no mistake: he is a first-rate statesman who rightfully deserved maximum consideration from Gov. Nikki Haley. Scott is an honorable man, whose conservative political ideology and voting history seem to be in complete harmony with those of the majority of South Carolinians. At a time of partisan acrimony ad nauseum, Scott is by no means a “Hill raiser.” And while he made the decision not to join the Congressional Black Caucus, Scott is respected by all of its members, not withstanding his conservatism, which is leap years beyond our members and our constituents.
The contrasting views held by these prominent black national political figures reflect the greater reality of Scott’s political career, one in which he has sought to be judged by his views and his record while avoiding racial politics. Indeed the story of Scott, who grew up a poor inner-city youth and became one of the most-watched figures in national Republican politics, is as much a tale of his own success as one of the beginnings of the end of the racial divide which dominated Deep South politics since Reconstruction.
Scott’s start in politics came in 1995, when he won nearly eighty percent of the vote as the Republican candidate for a county-wide seat on Charleston County Council, a county whose population was roughly seventy percent white. Much of the time on Council, he served as Chair and was noted for a number of economic development efforts, including introducing Boeing to Charleston. He went on to win races for the State House in 2008 and the state’s First Congressional District seat, both districts with lopsided majorities of white voters, by solid margins.
His 2010 race for Congress included a Republican run-off against Paul Thurmond, son of former United States Senator Thurmond ,who was once an ardent segregationist and who abandoned those views later in his political career. In spite of national media narratives which attempted to define the contest as having strong racial undercurrents, which both Scott and Thurmond sought to downplay, the race between the two was cordial and free of discussion of racial issues. Scott won the run-off against Thurmond handily and earned Thurmond’s support for the general election, where he won in a landslide, becoming the first congressman of African-American heritage to represent the state’s coastal region since Republican George Washington Murray, who served in the late 1800s.
Once elected to the House, Scott declined to join the Congressional Black Caucus, telling news media that:
My campaign has been about themes that unite all Americans – restoring the American dream by reducing the tax burden, decreasing government interference in the private sector and restoring fiscal responsibility, and I don’t think those ideals are advanced by focusing on one group of people.
Scott wasn’t the only modern-day Republican House member of African-American heritage not to join the Black Caucus. J.C. Watts, who represented an Oklahoma House district in the 1990s, refused to join, calling the group “race-hustling poverty pimps.”
One of those familiar with Scott is Lin Bennett, who serves as the current chair of the Charleston County Republican Party, the heart of Scott’s coastal political base, as well as the First Vice-Chair of the S.C. Republican Party. Bennett described Scott as a “true post-racial” politician, believing that:
He sees the world that Dr. Martin Luther King saw, one where the world judges you by your abilities rather than seeing just your skin color. Most people along the coast have always seen Tim Scott as just Tim Scott, a good man, and judge him by his abilities and his work ethic. The “normal people” who get up and work every day, raise their families and try to see people for who they are have always supported Tim because they like his message.
While Scott’s career has been along the coast, which has the best record for electing non-white politicos both during Reconstruction as well as after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, he has also begun winning over support from voters in the state’s Upstate region, which has historically been much tougher ground for black politicians.
One of those Upstate politicos who expressed support for Scott was David Carter, an Upstate South Carolina GOP strategist. Carter called Scott a “rock star” in the Upstate region, reporting that he was “as popular with GOP voters as Trey Gowdy (an Upstate House member). Carter saw Scott’s ability to reach across racial and partisan lines as a threat to groups like the NAACP:
When the party comes up with messaging which attracts minorities, you’ll get people like Tim Scott. He can articulate Republican messages to both mainstream Republicans as well as to minority audiences, so of course groups like the NAACP, which are generally aligned with the Democratic Party, will go after him.
Scott’s public record and ability to attract support from across racial lines paints a picture of Scott as one whose political career was built upon steering clear of, and rejecting, racial stereotypes or identification. His election, as well as the success of other Republican politicos such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, reflects a Republican Party which is beginning to move back towards the multi-racial identity it held after the Civil War, leaving the post-Civil Rights “Southern Strategy” Nixon era behind.
Scott will face South Carolina voters in 2014 to serve the remaining two years of DeMint’s term, followed by an election in 2016 for the next full term for the seat. As Scott is already attracting the support of many Republican politicos across the state for his 2014 campaign, including Governor Nikki Haley, who appointed him, and most of the state’s congressional delegation, he’s considered a strong favorite to win the contest.
In a Deep South state like South Carolina, with a large minority electorate, a victory by Scott, a veteran politico well-experienced at winning by large margins by uniting black and white voters, would be yet another sign that voters in the South, a region once known for racial politics, are moving beyond race as an important political factor. While Scott’s appointment to the Senate represents progress towards a more inclusive Senate and his successful post-racial political career reflects the kind of color-blind world that many civil rights leaders worked so hard for, it’s disappointing that Jealous has chosen to mark the occasion to engage in the same kind of attacks once wielded by harsh pre-Civil Rights racists and segregationists.
If Jealous and those like him want to be relevant to this changing electorate, they would be wise to emulate Scott’s formula for success in the emerging post-racial South instead of criticizing it. Whether they choose to move forward or continue to look backward, it’s unlikely their attacks on Scott will hold him back in the Senate – or wherever he chooses to go next.
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