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.
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.”
Moniz died of a heart attack at 38. The death propelled a devastated Scott to write out a life mission statement. Not yet 18 years old, Scott decided to devote his life to impacting positively the lives of 1 billion people before he died.
He eventually turned to public service as his avenue for reaching others. “It became the most obvious way to make the most difference,” Scott said. “I didn’t have a bunch of money to give away.”
Scott, whose faith deepened through intensive Bible study during his college years at Charleston Southern University, has not tried to hide his faith in the public arena. In 1997, he led a successful movement within the Charleston County Council to display the Ten Commandments. The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit. After two years of legal battles, the courts forced the county to remove the plaque. Scott told reporters at the time that the legal costs were worth defending the Commandments.
“He is a Christian who happens to be a congressman,” said Joe Stringer, an insurance agent from the Charleston area who has known Scott for 25 years and is his weekly prayer partner. “He is passionate about what his role is, and he believes that God has placed him in this role for a reason.”
In winning his congressional seat, Scott first beat in the Republican primary the son of former Sen. Strom Thurmond, the state’s political icon who served 48 years in the U.S. Senate and once ran for president as a third-party segregationist candidate. Scott, who once served as an honorary chairman for one of Thurmond’s reelection bids, won the general election 65 percent to 29 percent. He is favored to win a second term this fall in a district that traces South Carolina’s coast.
In Washington, Scott has opposed the National Labor Relations Board’s efforts to stop Boeing from opening a new plant in South Carolina. He introduced legislation, which passed the House, to prevent the NLRB from going after businesses trying to expand their presence in right-to-work states.
Scott also has not been afraid to go against his own party leadership. During the 2011 battle over raising the U.S. debt ceiling, Scott pressed for a balanced budget constitutional amendment. He ultimately voted against House Speaker John Boehner’s final compromise measure that raised the debt limit, because he believed it didn’t go far enough to curtail spending.
During that debate, Scott again turned to his faith. While Republican leaders pressured lawmakers to get enough votes to secure passage, Scott encountered in the Capitol halls several other House members from the freshman delegation also struggling with their decisions.
“We need to pray about this together,” one lawmaker said. “Why not now?” another replied.
The lawmakers went to the tiny House chapel located inside the Capitol and got down on their knees. Scott said that while praying he thought of Proverbs 22:7 and its warning that a borrower is a slave to the lender. When he emerged from the chapel, Scott told reporters: “I am a no at the end of the day. I was leaning no. Now I am a no.”
Scott doesn’t know how long he will remain in politics. He has goals to help nonprofits, faith-based community organizations, and children who are struggling in high school the way he once did. He said Washington’s busy schedule makes it easy for lawmakers to forget their core personal values in the midst of pursuing Capitol Hill’s definition of success: “If I’m a good Republican, but I’m not a good servant, what good is the office I hold?”
Scott, who is unmarried and is a member of a large, interdenominational evangelical church called Seacoast, goes home to South Carolina whenever Congress is not in session so he can see “my momma, my church, and my friends.” Most of those friends laughed at him when he first told them about his life goal to help a billion people.
“I said, ‘yeah right,’” recalled Stringer, his prayer partner. “But if you also had told me this man would become a congressman in the United States House of Representatives, I would have laughed again and said ‘no way.’ But he’s there now.”