Politics & Government

Tim Scott’s ‘burden:’ Having to always speak first on issues of race in the GOP

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston. The State/File

Sen. Tim Scott is being lauded for helping spur fellow Republicans to take action against one of their own, Rep. Steve King, for comments sympathetic to white supremacists — but the Senate’s only black Republican has mixed feelings about getting much of the credit.

“I think it’s more burden than it is credit,” Scott told McClatchy on Wednesday.

“One of the things I always think about is, whenever I do what it is that I do, that the next time something occurs, I’m going to be in the same position ... And I don’t want to consistently be the guy who has to point out all the challenges or inadequacies or things that are just inconsistent with reality, from my perspective, for the party or for the country,” he said.

Whether it’s a member of Congress spouting inflammatory rhetoric or the GOP pushing to confirm a judge with a fraught record on race, Scott has consistently found himself the first Republican to speak out forcefully against actions that could hurt the party brand and its ability to grow beyond its predominantly white base.

King roiled Washington when he asked in The New York Times last week, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” It was the latest example of the congressman’s history of making incendiary statements on race.

Scott was not alone this time among Republicans protesting the comments. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, condemned King on Monday. That same day, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, led the effort to strip King of his committee assignments. Third ranking House Republican Liz Cheney of Wyoming said King should leave office.

On Tuesday, the entire House voted on a resolution to disapprove of King’s comments except for one Democrat who wants to impose an even harsher punishment of censure.

But Scott was the first Republican to respond to King with more than just a disapproving statement or tweet. On Friday, he penned a pointed op-ed in the Washington Post that gained national attention.

“When people with opinions similar to King’s open their mouths, they damage not only the Republican Party and the conservative brand but also our nation as a whole,” Scott wrote. “Some in our party wonder why Republicans are constantly accused of racism — it is because of our silence when thinks like this are said.”

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, a former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said, “there’s no question in mind” that Scott triggered the domino effect of actions taken against King by members of his party.

“One of their own condemned him first, and I am just so proud of Sen. Tim Scott,” Fudge said. “I am so proud of what he did. It took a lot of courage and I think once he called (Republicans) out, they didn’t have any option. He showed a backbone that they don’t have.”

“I think he played a very positive role in this issue,” agreed House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-South Carolina, who orchestrated the vote of disapproval against King.

Clyburn, the highest-ranking black member of Congress, has been known to fiercely disagree with Scott on policy.

McCarthy, in an interview with McClatchy, wouldn’t cede complete credit for being the first Republican leader to really hold King accountable. McCarthy’s predecessors never did more than chide King when he made headlines with a controversial remark.

But McCarthy, who called Scott “one of my very best friends,” agreed the senator “should not have to be” the first and only lawmaker to speak out on issues of race, and said a failure of Republican leaders to condemn King would have been detrimental to the GOP’s image.

McCarthy also confirmed he and Scott spoke about the King matter before and after Scott published his op-ed, which McCarthy praised as having had “an effect on the nation.”

“When I heard what Steve King (said), I spoke out right then and it really disturbed me, and I knew I was going to do something,” McCarthy said. “But I also spoke to Tim to see if I was on the same path that he was on, and how much it disturbed me what was said.”

While there’s no evidence to suggest McCarthy — or McConnell or Cheney — would not have taken action had it not been for Scott speaking out first, there’s a history of Republicans waiting for Scott to create a hospitable environment for voicing uncomfortable truths.

Over the summer, Scott sunk the nomination of Ryan Bounds to be a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Scott was disturbed by Bounds’ college writings that mocked multiculturalism, and the senator’s decision to step forward in opposition influenced others, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, to do the same.

Last fall, Scott stymied the Senate’s efforts to confirm Thomas Farr to be a district judge in North Carolina because of concerns he helped orchestrate a coordinated effort to disenfranchise black voters in Sen. Jesse Helms’ 1990 reelection campaign.

Scott agonized over the decision about whether to support Farr. He hosted like-minded Republican senators, including Rubio, in his office to discuss the matter and hear from the author of a Justice Department memo that could shed light on Farr’s record.

But if other senators were also struggling, they never said so. Scott was left to be the one to say he wouldn’t vote for Farr, and he alone has endured the wrath of conservative judicial activists.

Asked whether he has confronted his colleagues directly about their inclination to avoid these debates, Scott would only say, “I have done a pretty good job of trying to make sure all my interpersonal conversations, unless essential, remain private. That’s one of the ways you keep your credibility.”

Besides, Scott said, “I think, unfortunately, there will be other opportunities for people to take a leading role. I’ll wait and see what happens.”

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.