The Senate's newest member talks politics and race.
It is easy for some people to underestimate newly minted Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. He didn't arrive on Capitol Hill with the swagger of former colleague and congressman Allen West and can appear to lack the outward ease inherent in a legacy like Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Missouri). Nor does he have the policy bona fides of House budget go-to guy Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee.
Few who knew him way back when would predict that Scott, who has described himself as being "kind of an oddball" in his youth, would ascend so high in American politics. Yet there he is: only the sixth African-American to serve in the U.S. Senate.
"I feel like I'm living my mom's American dream," Scott said in an exclusive interview with BET.com. "She was a single mom who fought so hard to keep me on the right path and on the right track and in school at times. How much of a contribution she's made along the way is important to note."
Scott initially hoped that sports would be the key to his future success. But, he says, his mother and his mentor John Moniz, an Chick-fil-A franchise owner who is white, convinced him that using his mind would bring him greater opportunities.
"It took a long time for me to actually believe it, to tell you the truth," he recalled. "But after three years of hearing the same messages it started sinking in."
The newest member of a very small club of African-Americans to serve in the U.S. Senate has famously downplayed race throughout his political career. In fact, he is in many ways anathema to what many Americans think of when they think of a typical Black politician.
Scott is a die-hard conservative; a pro-choice, small-government, gun rights enthusiast and a tea party star. Some African-American leaders have slammed him for his beliefs, most recently NAACP president Ben Jealous, who said the lawmaker doesn't believe in civil rights.
It's a notion that Scott scoffs at, calling the claim "ridiculous." First, Jealous doesn't know him, he said. And secondly, Scott thinks everyone believes in civil rights although they may differ on how to address the issue.
"The question is how do we make sure that all Americans get to move forward in this nation and I would not think making stereotypical statements of anyone will help that," Scott said.
Scott also downplays how race colors his appointment to fill the seat vacated by Rep. Jim DeMint, who resigned late last year, despite it being history-making. He believes it's more a sign that American voters have evolved and that many are fulfilling Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream that people be judged by the content of their character.
"I think it is reflective in victories on both sides of the aisle," he said. "We have a lot to celebrate as a nation."
Unlike West, Scott declined an invitation to join the Congressional Black Caucus. But that hasn't stopped him from nurturing relationships with several CBC members, including former chairman Emanuel Cleaver, civil rights icon John Lewis and Lacy Clay, based on shared interests like small business, making life easier for single, working parents, literacy and a civil rights trail.
"What I haven't done is gone around trying to figure out how to make sure everybody knows that I'm willing to work with whomever," he said. "I think it's far more important and sincere to not look for ways to throw my desire for healthy relationships with people to the press."
Indeed, perhaps the most important lesson Scott has learned during his two short years on Capitol Hill is "to thine own self be true." He says that the lawmakers he's observed being the most effective are those who stick to their own principle-centered convictions.
"They don't waver on what they believe. They are typically very forthright and clear and kind," he said, citing Lewis and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor as examples. "So if I've learned anything, it's to be very comfortable in your own skin and remain committed to your principles."
It's a lesson he will carry over to the Senate, where he will have to serve seven congressional districts instead of one. And even though he must also appeal to a broader swath of constituents, Scott has no plans to moderate his policy positions.
"I am not under the illusion that everyone has to agree with me for me to be their senator. My responsibility is to make myself available to all of the constituents I serve. Sometimes we have to agree to disagree without being disagreeable," he said.
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(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)