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Tim Scott
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Tim Scott

There to serve

Politics | Shaped by his mother, his mentor, and his faith, Congressman Tim Scott has broken barriers in seeking public service

Issue: "Inside Election 2012," Oct. 20, 2012

WASHINGTON—Tim Scott liked to push boundaries from an early age.

Living with his mother and brother in his grandparents’ house on a dirt road in Charleston, S.C., Scott would often get spanked all the way back into the yard whenever he got caught playing in the street against his mother’s wishes.

When his mother told him that the gas stove fire was too hot to touch, an 8-year-old Scott learned the hard way that she was right.

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Being barred from trying his own version of the stunts he saw Evel Knievel perform on TV didn’t stop Scott from crashing his bicycle into a collection of trash cans he had assembled to jump over. And warned that a lighter in the shape of a gun was not a toy, Scott ignited the blankets and sheets on his bed. He sat and watched them burn until the fire department arrived.

“I was looking for attention in all the wrong places,” said Scott, now 46. He then added with a grin: “That kinda sounds like a good old country song.”

Today, Scott is still pushing limits and breaking barriers—but in safer, even historic ways that do not involve whippings, burnt hands, wrecked bikes, or fire hoses.

In 1995, Scott won a seat on the Charleston County Council, making him the first black Republican elected to any office in South Carolina since Reconstruction. After 13 years on the council, including a stint as chairman, Scott headed to the state’s capital in Columbia as South Carolina’s first black Republican elected to the state legislature in more than 100 years. Two years later, in 2010, Scott achieved another milestone that sent him to the nation’s capital: Scott and Allen West of Florida became the first black Republicans elected to Congress in the Deep South in more than a century.

Scott understands the significance of being a black Republican lawmaker elected to represent the city, Charleston, where more than 150 years ago Confederates fired the first shots of the Civil War. But Scott doesn’t like to stress his race, once telling a reporter, “South Carolinians want someone who represents values more than someone who represents their face, their complexion.” He refused to join the Congressional Black Caucus because he said he came to Capitol Hill to bring people together.

He prefers to talk about how his mother, a mentor, and his faith helped put him on the road to Washington.

Scott recalls sitting on a couch as a 7-year-old boy crying because he had just learned that his parents were separating. To keep her family off welfare, Scott’s mother worked 16-hour days in a hospital as a nurse’s aide. On the weekends she took them to Charleston’s Morris Street Baptist Church. To keep him away from the dangers of the inner city, Scott’s mother would not let him play outside when she wasn’t home. She would beat Scott back into the house whenever she caught him disobeying.

“My mother definitely believed the definition of love was a switch,” Scott said. But Scott made it through childhood without taking drugs or drinking alcohol. He says the courage and commitment modeled by his mother are the skills he has tried to live by as the owner of an insurance agency and as a lawmaker. “Today I’m living my mother’s American dream,” Scott said.

But Scott almost didn’t make it out of high school. His freshman year he flunked world geography, civics, Spanish, and English. Teachers told him he had ability but lacked discipline. Scott seemed more interested in being the class clown.

'Today I’m living my mother’s American dream.'  —Scott

During his sophomore year Scott took a job selling popcorn at a movie theater. One day he walked across the street to Chick-fil-A to get lunch. He could only afford the fries. But the restaurant’s manager, John Moniz, walked up to Scott and offered a sandwich in exchange for a conversation. Scott agreed. The lunch talks soon became a part of Scott’s day.

Over the next three years, Scott and Moniz often went to local basketball and football games. As a graduate of The Citadel, South Carolina’s Charleston-based military college, Moniz displayed the discipline Scott’s teachers said Scott lacked. Scott soon joined the high-school football team and eventually became president of the student body.

“He became an honest, living and breathing example of what was possible in life,” Scott said of Moniz. “He taught me that there is something on the inside of you that is far more powerful than the influences that are around you.”

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