There’s never been anybody in the history of the Republican Party quite like Tim Scott.
A descendant of enslaved people, the second son of a single mother, a bachelor, a teetotaler and an erstwhile insurance salesman, the convivial, 57-year-old South Carolina senator is a uniquely successful Black conservative from the South — a victim of racism in stores, on roads, online and even in the United States Capitol itself, who doesn’t see the country as racist and doesn’t see himself as a victim. It’s a message that now will undergird a compelling but likely longshot presidential bid.
What do people need to know about the man who has now joined fellow South Carolinian Nikki Haley, outsider entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and soon-to-be-official-candidate Ron DeSantis (and others to come) in challenging former president Donald Trump for the GOP nomination? Here, culled from interviews, media coverage and Scott’s own books, is a primer on the life of Tim Scott.
He is the only Black Republican in the United States Senate.
He is the only Black person to ever serve in both chambers of Congress.
He is one of only 11 Black people in the history of the country to be in the Senate and one of just three (along with Democrats Cory Booker and Raphael Warnock) currently in the Senate.
“America is not a racist country,” he has said.
“Only in America can my story play out the way it has,” he has said.
Some 150 years after his enslaved ancestors were forced to come to South Carolina, he was born in North Charleston on Sept. 19, 1965.
His father was a Kool-menthol-chain-smoking Vietnam vet in the Air Force. His mother was a nurse who often worked double shifts from 7 in the morning till 11 at night. When his mother left his father — “Take them away from me and your kids will never succeed! They will be nothing, just like their mama!” he yelled as she drove off — a 7-year-old Scott moved into his grandparents’ small, dirt-road house, where with his mother, his older brother and he shared a room and a bed.
His grandfather left school in the third grade to pick cotton for 50 cents a day. He couldn’t read or write but was an avid daily newspaper peruser.
He and his grandfather in the mid-’70s watched professional wrestling, and the wrestler they rooted for the most was Houston Harris, who went by the ring name of Bobo Brazil and was the first Black man in the National Wrestling Alliance. “Similar to Jackie Robinson, he provided a glimpse of what was to come — the world my grandaddy was striving for,” Scott once wrote. “His success helped us to see that we could do more. We could be more.”
His grandfather’s greatest love, though, was his garden. He learned from his grandfather, he said, that the seed is more important than the soil. “Given enough time,” his grandfather taught Scott, “a seed will find its way through the hardest concrete.”
He had buck teeth as a boy, which made other kids call Scott “Teet.”
As a freshman at North Charleston’s R.B. Stall High School, he failed English, Spanish, geography and civics. His mother made him go to summer school and find a job to pay for it.
His first job was at a local movie theater. He popped popcorn and liked “Rocky III.”
On breaks he went to a nearby Chick-fil-A and always ordered the same thing — waffle fries and a water — because it was the only thing he could afford. The owner, a white man named John Moniz, noticed him, struck up a conversation and ultimately became a life-changing mentor — imparting “conservative business principles” and telling Scott, as Scott would later say, “I could think my way out of poverty.”
His favorite sport was football. His favorite team was the Dallas Cowboys. His favorite player was running back Tony Dorsett (according to his 2020 book) or quarterback Roger Staubach (according to his 2022 book). He slept with a football, toted it to class and rushed it on the field, to the tune of more than six yards a carry as a budding college prospect.
“President Tim Scott,” he whispered to himself in bed at night. “I’m going to do it. I am going to run for president,” he told a friend. He was elected student body vice president as a junior. He was elected student body president as a senior.
“Sometimes I got hate-filled notes with racial slurs attached to my locker,” he once said. And sometimes he “felt more racism” from his Black friends who called him “Oreo” — “because,” he explained, “I wasn’t meeting the expectation of the groupthink within the school.”
Just before his senior year at Stall, in late August of 1982, Scott nodded off while driving, flipping his mother’s Toyota hatchback, breaking his ankle and hurting his back — lessening bigger universities’ interest in him as a football recruit.
He went on a partial sports scholarship to Presbyterian College, a 1,200-student school in an 8,000-person town, where as one of some three dozen Black students he “heard the N-word many times off and on campus,” he has said. The captain of the school’s Blue Hose football team introduced Scott to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “I’m not sure I ever would have found Jesus if my ego took me where I wanted to go. God didn’t cause the accident, but he used it to deliver me into his kingdom,” he later would say. “In college, Jesus became everything to me,” he has written. “My life,” he has said, “is worthless without Jesus Christ.”
He got braces for his buck teeth when he was 19 years old and an orthodontist put him on a payment plan of $40 a month of money he was making by still working at the movie theater.
He graduated in 1988 from the Baptist College at Charleston (now Charleston Southern University) with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
After college, he started selling insurance, eventually growing Tim Scott Allstate into a 3,000-customer business. He bought his mother a house.
In 1994, running for a seat on the Charleston County Council while volunteering on the congressional campaign of a young Mark Sanford, Scott was starstruck meeting Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich at an Elks Lodge. He initially had gone to the local Democratic Party headquarters to express his interest in the seat on the council. “They told me to get in line,” he once told Tim Alberta. So he ran as a Republican — and became in early 1995 the first Black Republican elected to any office in South Carolina since 1902.
He served as a state co-chair of one-time arch segregationist Strom Thurmond’s final Senate campaign in 1996. “People change their minds,” Scott once explained. “They embrace truth. In the end he received around 30 percent of the Black vote. I’d like to get there. If Strom Thurmond could get 30 percent of the Black vote, any Republican can.”
That year, too, in his first term on the county council, Scott ran for the state senate. In spite of advocating for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol and receiving the endorsement of the Democratic mayor of the city of Charleston, Scott lost badly — by 30 points — to Robert Ford, who worked for Martin Luther King Jr. and was arrested 73 times during the civil rights movement.
He joined in 1997 Seacoast Church, a fledgling nondenominational megachurch in suburban, affluent, overwhelmingly white Mount Pleasant, where the pastor became a friend and adviser. “The most powerful force in my adult life,” he’s called the now-25,000-congregant church.
In 2008, he ran for and won a seat in the South Carolina state house, and he also took his grandfather to vote. His grandfather couldn’t read the ballot, so he pointed to the name —Barack Obama. As he drove him home, he looked over at his grandfather, who had tears rolling down his face. “Timmy, the miracle isn’t whether he wins or not. The miracle is that he is on the ballot!” his grandfather said. “Timmy, for more than half of my life, I wasn’t allowed to vote.”
In his single term as a state representative, Scott joined the Women’s Caucus, citing his background as “the product of a powerful single mother.”
Running in the Tea Party-defined 2010 cycle in South Carolina’s three-quarters-white 1st Congressional District — beating in the primary Strom Thurmond’s son, and backed by Sarah Palin, Kevin McCarthy, Eric Cantor and the Club for Growth — Scott became the first Black Republican from the state elected to the United States House of Representatives since 1897.
He didn’t join the Congressional Black Caucus. It wasn’t how he wanted to be seen. “My campaign was never about race,” he said.
He was appointed by then-Gov. Nikki Haley in December of 2012 to replace Sen. Jim DeMint, who was resigning to head up the Heritage Foundation — making Scott the first Black Republican senator since 1978 and the first Black Republican senator from the South since Reconstruction.
Early in his tenure in the United States Senate, Scott embarked on an unusual and sometimes “undercover” listening tour around South Carolina, chopping chicken, bagging groceries, sweeping floors, riding the bus. “Most of the time I don’t identify myself because it’s easy to have a polite conversation with a U.S. senator, but you can have a real conversation with the dude on the bus,” he told a reporter from BET.com in 2014. “Sometimes it’s better to just be the dude on the bus.”
He won with 61.1 percent of the vote in a special election in 2014 to serve the rest of DeMint’s term, making him South Carolina’s first popularly elected Black United States senator.
“If you call progress electing a person with the pigmentation that he has, who votes against the interest and aspirations of 95 percent of the Black people in South Carolina,” Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) told the Washington Post’s Ben Terris that year, “then I guess that’s progress.”
Scott won again in 2016 and again with more than 60 percent of the vote to earn a full six years.
He doesn’t drink.
He’s a night owl, staying up into the wee hours of the morning, sleeping in as late as possible.
He’s never been married and has no children. “In the right time, I will meet Mrs. Right, and she’ll want to have a couple kids,” he once said. “Or she ain’t Mrs. Right. Right?”
If he wants to get pumped up, he listens to “Word Up,” by Cameo. If he’s having a tough day, he listens to “The Blessing,” by Kari Jobe.
After the Mother Emanuel church shooting, he joined Haley in supporting the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol grounds. “I do not believe the vast majority of those who support the flag have hate in their hearts,” Scott said in a statement, “but it is clear that this is the right step forward for our state.”
His office received approximately 10 racist voicemails from a man in Georgia who threatened to kill him, praised the Mother Emanuel shooter, railed against the “untruths of Black victimization” and was arrested in 2017. (He pleaded guilty in 2018 and was sentenced to 30 months in prison.)
He was bothered by Donald Trump’s comment that “there were fine people on both sides” at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in the summer of 2017. “I believe the president has compromised his moral authority to lead,” Scott said. “Do you think he’s a racist?” Alberta later asked Scott. “I don’t,” Scott said. “Is he racially insensitive? Yes. But is he a racist? No.”
He prevented in 2018 the confirmation of a pair of judges with racist writings in their pasts.
“I don’t care who you voted for or what you think about the 2020 election — what happened on Jan. 6 was wrong,” he wrote in his 2022 book. He didn’t, though, blame Trump specifically, believing the insurrection — “this tragic day,” as he put it — “was the culmination of individuals making bad choices.”
After Scott delivered the GOP rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s address to Congress in April of 2021, “Uncle Tim” trended on Twitter. “It wasn’t cute. It was hateful,” Scott would write. “They may as well have called me a ‘house nigger.’”
He’s been shadowed by clerks in grocery stores and department stores. He’s been pulled over by law enforcement, he says, more than 20 times in 20 years. “I was not pulled over for going three miles over the limit,” he wrote in his book that came out last year. “I was pulled over for being Black.”
Five times he’s been stopped by a Capitol Police officer on his way into the Capitol to cast a vote, he has said. “Each time, after showing the officer my credentials, I was detained. Each time, I have had to ask my white colleagues to tell the officer who I was.”
“Nowadays, whenever I hear about the ‘Black experience,’ the only stories I hear are the hard stories. And while I believe these stories are important to tell,” he wrote in his latest book, “if you listen to the national narrative, you would think each and every one of us has lived a life of desperate pain, heartache and misery. You would think Black people across our great nation are victims of pretty much everything.” He added: “What a ridiculous way to view the world!”
“People are fixated on my color,” he told POLITICO Magazine. “I’m just not.”
“When I look at our nation, I don’t see division. I don’t for one second believe the false narrative of a racist, divided America that has been spun by big media,” he has said.
“Injustice is real,” he has said. “But infinitely more real is opportunity.”
“There are two ways to view history,” he has said. “One is to shine an unwavering light on the myriad atrocities that have befallen us. And there is nothing wrong with having a realistic and honest accounting of history. In fact, it’s vital that we do so. It helps us to keep from repeating it. From my experience, however, dwelling on the pain of the past for too long threatens to keep us mired there. When I look back, I prefer to focus on how far we’ve come. Only then can I envision how beautiful the road ahead could be.”
A proven, prolific fundraiser, he said upon his reelection last fall he would not run for another Senate term — with a reference to his grandfather and a wink to what was to come. “I wish he had lived long enough to see perhaps another man of color elected president of the United States,” he said. “But this time let it be a Republican.”
“Dear Heavenly Father,” said the first fundraising appeal from his exploratory committee, an email that requested a two-minute prayer.
Policy differences with Trump? “Probably not very many at all,” he said in February to Sean Hannity. “I am so thankful that we had President Trump in office.”
“If you want to understand America, you need to start in Charleston; you need to understand and appreciate the devastation brought upon African Americans,” Scott said in a recent speech in South Carolina. “But if you stop at our original sin, you have not started the story of America, because the story of America is not defined by our original sin. The story of America is defined by our redemption.”
“For those of you on the left, you can call me a prop, you can call me a token, you can call me the N-word, you can question my Blackness, you can even call me ‘Uncle Tim,’” Scott said in a recent speech in Iowa. “Just understand: Your words are no match for my evidence. Your pessimism is no match for my history. My existence shows your irrelevance. The truth of my life disproves your lies.”
Sources: POLITICO, POLITICO Magazine, the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the New York Post, the Greenwood Index-Journal, the Charleston Post and Courier, ABC News, Fox News, Vox, NPR, BET.com, senate.gov, Opportunity Knocks: How Hard Work, Community, and Business Can Improve Lives and End Poverty, by Tim Scott; America, A Redemption Story: Choosing Hope, Creating Unity, by Tim Scott.
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