CHARLESTON, S.C. — Tim Scott, Republican candidate for the coastal 1st District Congressional seat in South Carolina, has been embraced by the Republican Party, endorsed by the Tea Party and is an odds-on favorite to win in November. If elected, he will be among the the first black Republicans in Congress since 2003; GOP candidates Ryan Frazier of Colorado and Allen West of Florida are also favored to win seats. But how does the GOP candidate play in the home district among African-American voters, fellow politicians and leaders?
Scott, a small business owner and one of the most conservative members of the S.C. legislature, is against government spending, business regulation, cap-and-trade proposals, tax increases and President Obama’s signature health care reform law. Like U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, he has pledged to oppose earmarks. He defeated Paul Thurmond, son of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, in a primary runoff, and is running against six opponents. His Democratic opponent Ben Frazier, who is also African-American, is a perennial candidate who hasn’t gotten much support from his party.
Scott, 45, was born in North Charleston and grew up in poverty with a single mother who worked 16-hour days to keep him and his brother in school. Although he was the first black Republican elected to countywide office and the first black Republican elected to the state House of Representatives since Reconstruction, on the campaign trail Scott has been reluctant to talk about race or any “first” designations.
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“His position is it’s got nothing to do with color. I take issue with that. It’s got everything to do with color” said state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, Democrat of Charleston, a colleague in the state legislature. “We should always give credit to the past and what our ancestors fought and died for. By virtue of our history alone, any time we have a chance to give respect, we should always seize the moment. I hate to see African-Americans shunning the moment.”
On the other hand, Gilliard said, voters care about what black leaders do, not what they say. “If you’re going to bring the bacon back, earmarks to me is a blessing … Are you going to be the first to have people employed, are you going to be the first to bring industry on a continual basis, are you going to be the first to move the educational system of South Carolina from the bottom to the front? Those are the things that people understand and appreciate. If the people hold him accountable and make sure he was sent to serve the people and not for the people to serve him, only then will you see a difference. Within that district we’ve got people of all creeds and persuasions. Your job is to serve the many and not the few.”
“I like Tim as a person,” said state Rep. Robert L. Brown, D-Hollywood. “There’s a real need here in terms of jobs, education, health care and infrastructure, and the list goes on. The people that we’re sending to Washington are totally disconnected. They don’t pay any attention. They go off on a tangent like Jim DeMint. I’m not sure we’re going to get anything more out of Tim Scott than we did out of (retiring U.S. Rep.) Henry Brown. That’s why we’re so far behind in South Carolina. If you’re not going to get it from earmarks, you’re not going to get it any other way.”
“He’s an independent man,” said state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston. “He’s very respected in the African-American community. He went to African-American schools and along the way, he gained a conservative point of view…. He won’t win the black vote but he’s going to get some. He’ll get 29 or 30 percent of the black vote.”
Elder James Johnson, a community activist who works in North Charleston’s low-income neighborhoods, strongly disagrees. “Tim Scott was never favorable in the black community,” he said. “We think of him as a Republican, not a black person but a Republican. I don’t think they’re going to vote for him. Personally, I think we would have gotten more out of Strom Thurmond’s son than Tim Scott.”
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For Kwadjo Campbell, who served on Charleston City Council while Scott was chairman of Charleston County Council, “it doesn’t matter if he’s a Republican or not. Tim is a local guy from North Charleston and everybody knows him. That’s the perception. He’s very easily accessible, always has been…the question has arisen in the community and barber shops and greasy spoon restaurants, what is he going to do for the African-American constituents if you support him? That question arose in county council and Tim addressed it very well. He’s not a firebrand. He’s a negotiator. He knows how to coordinate with people of different ideologies and backgrounds. He has that unique ability to move back and forth and get things done without all the fanfare. He does it in his own style. Race is never an issue. We have different communities and Tim understands that and I think he will be fine”
“He won’t allow himself to be used” by the Republican Party, Campbell said. “He hasn’t been lambasting Obama. I guarantee some consultants form that side of the aisle have suggested that he put that out there, but he hasn’t done that and I commend him for that … Tim has a tremendous track record when it comes to being able to remain his own man. He will do what his heart tells him.”