ANDERSON, S.C. — Tim Scott stands comfortably on the podium engaging the crowd of 300 folks, nearly all white, for the first in a town hall series introducing presidential candidates to the state’s voters. These are his people.
South Carolina’s junior senator cites Bible verses, cracks jokes and sings the praises of both Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican whom he calls his best friend in Congress (and teasing him about his hair), and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is running for the GOP nomination for president. All three Republicans command a standing ovation, which is not surprising considering their conservative bona fides. But in a state reeling from the racially motivated killing of nine black churchgoers and an intense debate over the Confederate battle flag at its statehouse, Scott stands out — he is a conservative black Republican and the most popular politician in the state.
With a giant backdrop of Abraham Lincoln, no one, including Scott, mentions race. Scott said later he mentions race sparingly, preferring to offer solutions that help people regardless of color. Scott and other locals say the national media often fail to recognize the complexity of the state's history, where the Civil War began. And Scott says there are misconceptions about the black voting bloc.
“You would think that the African-American community is homogenous, one unique and specific direction on political philosophy — far from the truth,” Scott tells CQ Roll Call just minutes before the event, conceding that the diversity in philosophical thought is often difficult to see on Election Day. “I’m trying to help people be comfortable in voting their values.”
Scott’s town halls suggest ambition, perhaps laying groundwork for a gubernatorial, or maybe vice presidential bid — or at least as a kingmaker. But he says he’s simply trying to be a “conduit” for South Carolinians to make informed decisions, at the end of which his endorsement may be up for grabs.
Scott's endorsement is coveted given South Carolina's status as an early presidential primary, especially with his colleague, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, running.
At Monday's event, Gowdy introduces Scott with an anecdote about how the senator's response to something nasty being written about him was to pray for the offender. "My secret sauce is my faith probably, so what I do is let my faith inform me on how to treat others,” Scott said. “'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' It works for me and I sleep better at night. I look for ways to build a bridge and not divide us.”
Scott and his fellow South Carolinian, Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn, the highest ranking black Democrat in the House, flanked Gov. Nikki R. Haley when she announced her intention to take down the Confederate battle flag at the statehouse grounds. The two are scheduled to headline an event Wednesday night in Washington, D.C., to benefit the victims of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church massacre .
While Scott is well-liked, especially on the Republican side of the aisle, and may be attracting some black local voters, he has endured charges of tokenism by the media and those of being a ventriloquist’s dummy by an out-of-state NAACP leader .
“He clearly performs a role that Democrats and liberals don’t like,” said GOP consultant David Woodard.
Scott’s populist platform centers heavily on education, and he touts his background as the child of a working-class single mother, of nearly flunking out of high school before righting the ship with hard work, help from others and finding God. That's a life story relatable to voters and inspiring to those who preach the Republican mantra of personal responsibility.
Ruby Garisch, whose family has lived in Anderson since the 1700s, says race played a small role in her decision to vote for Scott because she "thought it was great that we had a black, conservative Republican running for [Senate]."
But it was not a big factor.
“He had to work very hard to attain the achievements and the grades and the knowledge that he got,” Garisch says. “It wasn’t something that came really easy to him."
To Garisch, the mystification over an elected black Republican from the South is symptomatic of a deeper misunderstanding of race relations in the state.
Garisch explains with personal anecdotes. When her family's house burned down in the Depression, black neighbors gave them children's clothes. Another black neighbor, who had just had a child, nursed her mother when her grandmother was sick and unable to.
“We live side by side, we experience the same struggles, and we’ve always treated each other with love and compassion,” Garisch says. “You have factions, just like you do up North. They need somebody to hate and unfortunately, they use skin color.”
Garisch, who has never owned a Confederate battle flag, understands why many are offended by it, but says that for many in the South, it's a source of pride and not racism or slavery. Many Confederate soldiers were people's ancestors, including Garisch's grandfather.
But over the weekend, a demonstration of trucks with Confederate flags cruised through the county protesting Walmart's decision to stop selling replicas. While the flag may not be a symbol of hatred for some, some of the 100 or so demonstrators hurled racial slurs at blacks around town, according to protesters who took to the streets the following day in a non-violent, "honk-to-end-racism” protest at the local courthouse. They, in turn, received honks from people of all colors and even the police.
Montez Hatten, one of the black protestors, had not heard of Scott, but likes the idea of a black Republican and notes, “It’s just one of them; we need more black Republicans [in Congress].”