Tim Scott doesn’t regularly seek out the spotlight. Yet the spotlight has a way of finding him anyway.
And there might be no bigger moment so far for the South Carolina senator than this one. Scott has been tasked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to do the near-impossible: Assemble a set of reforms that responds to the national outrage over police killings of African Americans and also satisfies President Donald Trump, conservative Republicans and enough Democrats to become law.
As one of three black senators, and the only Republican, Scott is regularly confronted with the intersection of politics and race. He counseled Trump after the president’s much-criticized response to white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., delivered the finishing blow against Trump judicial nominees with controversial racial views and famously revealed that even as a senator he’s still profiled by police.
And now Scott is what he calls the “guy holding the paper” — the person who will try to chart a course for the Senate Republican majority on police reform that meets the moment, with a conservative bent. Already he’s facing skepticism from Democrats who fear he and his party won’t go far enough. But he said that when it comes to the task at hand, it “ain’t about me.”
“The thing that really anchors me, especially in these challenging times, is when you realize that it’s not about you. It’s about you being a resource for hopefully greater good,” Scott said in an interview. He grew increasingly introspective when asked whether he enjoys being the center of attention on issues of race and policing.
“The purpose really can’t be me at this moment. The purpose is that there are literally tens of millions of Americans who’ve lost confidence in institutions that have authority,” Scott said. “As a victim of that situation many times, including this year, how do I make sure that my experience and not myself becomes the focal point?”
Like all things Tim Scott, the answer is to generally keep his head down and plow ahead. One of the most laid-back people in official Washington, you won’t hear him touting his status as one of just two black Republicans in Congress or throwing haymakers at Democrats who doubt his party’s ability to pass meaningful legislation.
Scott prefers to be under the radar and is so low-key that after he became a senator, he successfully spent several days undercover doing manual labor in South Carolina. He greets acquaintances with a twangy “yessir” in the hallways of the Senate, but rarely throws out headline chum to a press corps eager to hear his thoughts on race in the Trump era. He’ll do TV appearances, but doesn’t churn out tweetable soundbites.
“He is probably too good for this job. I mean he really is,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a fellow South Carolina Republican. “In this business where it’s about you? It’s not really about Tim in Tim’s own mind.”
Scott said on Thursday he doesn’t read any of the news coverage about him, saying it would distract from what he needs to do. He said he asks his staff to send him “only the most egregious comments” on Twitter.
This week he pushed back at criticism from those who called him a “token” black politician that’s “being used” by the GOP, questioning why people wouldn’t want a Republican who has faced profiling to be the party’s leader on police reform. In 2017 he responded to someone calling him a racial slur about working in a house by pointing out that he served in the Senate.
“People want to look at him as ‘the black senator,’ rather than just ‘senator,’” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a friend who is working on the GOP’s police bill with Scott. He said the burden of being the GOP’s racial conscience can make for an “awkward position to be in.”
“In a moment when the nation is talking about race, there’s a tendency to say ‘somebody needs to be able to step up and take this.’ But my first thought on Tim is: He’s just a great senator and leader, period,” Lankford added. “And I don’t find in him a sense of trying to lead with race first.”
Scott is expected to release his police reform proposal later this month. So far, he envisions legislation far different than what Democrats have proposed, one aimed at getting local departments to behave better without implementing stern new regulations from Washington. Scott is a deeply conservative politician and his ideas may struggle to find support among Democrats seeking big changes amid the national reckoning sparked by George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
For now, he’s not advocating a chokehold ban but instead looking to improve data collection and creating incentives for police to reduce their use of force. He’s also not trying to make it easier to sue police, a key Democratic ask. He says those provisions won’t get across the finish line, arguing that it’s not about just writing a good bill, but writing a good bill that can pass.
“I am simply a resource, I’m not the source, I don’t have the ability to get anything done. I’m one person out of 100,” he said. “And we need the president’s signature and if the Good Lord doesn’t bless it, it’s all in vain.”
One could spend a whole day trying and failing to get anyone in the Senate to say a cross word about Scott. And even as they attack the GOP’s plans on police reform, Democrats are careful not to doubt Scott’s motivations.
“Certainly Sen. Scott is working hard. But the forces that are the center of gravity in the Republican Party cause me to take a wait-and-see attitude,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).
Scott’s allies on anti-lynching legislation that’s likely to be included in the package, Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, are already criticizing the approach he’s laid out on policing even as they count Scott as a personal friend. Booker said the GOP’s tentative bill “does nothing” to allow officers to be held accountable in court, prevent fired officers from moving to another town’s police department and ban no-knock warrants and chokeholds.
“I haven’t yet read it. But the little I know about it, it does not meet the moment or the needs of the moment,” Harris said Thursday. “It’s so far from being relevant to really the crisis at hand, and what we need to do to solve the problems that are obvious.”
Scott is realistic about the challenge ahead of him. It’s an election year, Congress is divided and law enforcement is the type of issue that forces each party into its corner.
But he hopes that even if people oppose him as a politician, they will see that he did his best to make policy rather than boost his profile.
“Those folks who are protesting, there are more whites than blacks. That to me is good news for the country. We see the same problem from the same eyes with different experiences,” he said. “The goal is to make sure that all those people … see me not focusing on my own experiences or what’s best for the party but what’s best for them. Even if they don’t like me, sooner or later they will respect that it was about them. And not me.”