Tea for Tim

Article excerpt

Byline: Zev Chafets

He hails from where the civil war began, but this black republican tea party favorite doesn't want to be a leader on race.

When the massive Republican freshman class arrives in Washington in January, its members will begin the scramble for office furniture, plum committee assignments, and a little attention from the party's senior leadership. Tim Scott, the African-American Tea Partier from South Carolina's First Congressional District, will face the opposite problem. Scott, a quiet, somewhat introverted insurance agent turned politician, is hoping he will be seen as just another conservative lawmaker, fundamentally the same as the other newbies.

There's no way that is going to happen. Scott is a son of Dixie, born and raised in Charleston, the city where the Civil War started and where the tomb of John C. Calhoun, the great defender of slavery, is still a venerated tourist site. Until 1995 Scott's congressional seat was held by Arthur J. Ravenel, a proud member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who once referred to the NAACP as "the National Association for Retarded People." "Tim is like other freshmen in one sense: he's one of a group of principled young conservatives," says Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. "But he is special in another way. He's the first black Republican in Congress since J. C. Watts," the congressman from Oklahoma who retired in 2003.

Actually, Scott is one of two black Republican congressmen-elect heading to Washington after the GOP's crushing midterm victory last week. Allen West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Florida, also won a House seat. West defeated a Democratic incumbent in the Bagel Belt of southeast Florida. Like many of his constituents, he's a recent transplant to the state, and he is a product of a military culture. Scott, by contrast, won his victory after first trouncing Paul Thurmond, the son of the legendary segregationist senator Strom Thurmond. It's easy to see why anyone, even Steele, might put Scott in a separate category.

Scott doesn't believe in holding racial grudges. "The future is more important than the past," he told reporters after his victory in the almost lily-white GOP primary in June. He considers the struggle to remove the Confederate battle flag that still flies on the grounds of South Carolina's capitol building to be a nonissue. "We should be appreciative of our heritage," he says, "but at the end of the day it is more about tomorrow." This kind of soothing pragmatism, coupled with a devotion to the Tea Party agenda, has made Scott extremely popular among white voters, who make up more than 70 percent of the electorate in the First District. "These days, for most conservative whites in South Carolina, ideology trumps race," says Robert Oldendick, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina.

Scott is less popular among African-Americans, almost all of whom are Democrats. "He comes across to black people as someone we can't trust," says Conquestrina White, a Charleston art student. "I especially don't appreciate the way he bashes Obama." Others, though, are willing to wait and see. "We didn't know who Tim Scott was," says Pat Bellamy, a resident of Atlantic Beach, the fabled black beach-resort community that has fallen on hard times in recent years. "But then here comes this colored boy, pardon the expression, and he beats Strom Thurmond's son? That's a dynasty in South Carolina. You have to ask yourself, who is this?"

I met Scott for the first time at a small campaign event on the Saturday before the election. Red-white-and-blue campaign signs declaring TIM SCOTT, CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICAN marked the way to the patio of California Dreaming, a large restaurant in the Charleston marina. Yachts bobbed in the water, and the air was filled with the smell of grilling hot dogs and hamburgers. Golden oldies played loudly in the background, but nobody danced or even swayed to the music. …