"Are you Tim Scott?"
"You look like that representative fellow."
These are just a couple of the kinds of reactions South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has gotten after it gradually dawns on people that they've not been working alongside or sitting on the bus next to "just another dude" having a chat with them about everyday struggles like unemployment or accessing the training needed to get a better job.
And that's if they recognize him at all.
"If you're under the age of 30 and you know who I am, two out of three times, I'm shocked and amazed, but if you're over 35 and don't know who I am, I'm surprised," said Scott, whose name recognition statewide is at about 72 percent.
Scott was appointed in 2012 by Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the seat vacated by the resignation of former Sen. Jim DeMint. This year, it's the voters who will decide whether the lawmaker, who also served in the House from 2011-2013, will represent them. And in a first, Scott's likely opponent will be another African-American, Democrat Rick Wade, political operative and former Obama appointee.
Instead of inviting voters to get to know him at rallies and town hall meetings, Scott is going to them to learn about the issues that concern them most, and in some cases, to spend some hours in their shoes. In the past several months, he has performed what he described as "entry-level jobs," including sweeping floors, chopping chicken and bagging groceries. It's a method he employed in his district when he served in the House, but in his first effort to win a statewide race, Scott finds it helpful to go undercover.
"Most of the time I don't identify myself because it's easy to have a polite conversation with a U.S. senator, but you can have a real conversation with the dude on the bus," he said in an interview with BET.com. "Sometimes it's better to just be the dude on the bus."
A few months ago, Scott rode the public bus system throughout the Charleston area and spent time talking with about 10 other riders. None of the people had a college degree and only one had some post-secondary education.
One of the people with whom he struck up a conversation was a woman who leaves home at 10:30 a.m. to make sure that she gets to work at Walmart by her 1:00 p.m. start time. She's awfully grateful to have the job, but sure would love to develop the skills that would help her find more lucrative opportunities.
"She said, 'If I could do more, I would do more, but I can't afford to go to school, work full-time and take care of my kids, so how do I get there?'" Scott recalled.
Another rider expressed frustration about his employer's decision to implement a 30-hour work week to avoid having to provide health care benefits, "so he's finding himself making $10 an hour at a regional chain, stuck at $300 a week and 25 percent of his paycheck cut," Scott added, "so he was pretty animated." At Moe's Southwest Grill, where the lawmaker worked a shift sweeping floors and chopping chicken, he discussed with employees their hopes and dreams.
(Photo: Courtesy of Senator Tim Scott)
Scott has found these experiences both humbling and inspiring. Just 15 years ago, he recalls, he, too, was living paycheck to paycheck and "struggling like the Dickens," so he can relate to their struggle. But he's also inspired by their collective optimism.
In addition to learning to never pack eggs on top of bread in the grocery bag, he discovered that while "some people are frustrated," the vast majority still has high hopes for what the future will bring.
"There are roadblocks they're aware of. Times are harder and advancement isn't as easy as they think it could be," Scott said. "Part of that challenge is the ability to get a better education or more training and skills so they could earn more money and I think they're right."
Visiting his state's five Black colleges and universities, where he turned up as himself, has been an eye-opening experience. The students he's met have challenged him on why he's a Republican and some of his policy stands. But, once he shares alternative solutions to issues like Obamacare, "interestingly, they seem to like it pretty good," Scott said.
"HBCUs are an undervalued asset in America," he added. "We may be missing a golden opportunity on some of those campuses."
Scott recently introduced the Skills Act, which, in addition to making available job training opportunities that respond to employers' needs, would streamline dozens of federal workforce development programs into a single workforce investment fund. Its target audience is low-income workers, individuals with disabilities and at-risk youth. He's hoping that New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, the chamber's only other African-American lawmaker, as well as other Democrats will support the legislation.
Like most Republican lawmakers, Scott laments that more not fewer people are having to rely on some form of government assistance. He also voted against a bill to extend emergency unemployment insurance.
Still, he says, he is not against giving those in need a hand up and argues that "the notion that we're denying people assistance is a false characterization."
"What we ought to be thinking about is whether we're giving people an opportunity to succeed beyond the normal getting by and the government doesn't do a good job of helping people experience real opportunity," Scott said. "We can help you scrape by, but we should be focused on unleashing real opportunity and that takes a whole different mindset."
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(Photo: Gerry Melendez/The State/MCT/LANDOV)