The undercover senator: Tim Scott goes anecdote-shopping in South Carolina
By Ben Terris
May 6, 2014
GREENVILLE, S.C. — There’s a new volunteer at the Goodwill clearance center, and there’s a lot to learn.
He’s told to toss anything that requires an outlet, to put purses in their own box, and to never throw away a Bible. His guide for the morning, James Copeland, has been working at this warehouse for the past five years. Copeland, who’s missing a finger, came here straight from prison.
“So many people out on the street know they can make more money out there, that’s what’s on their minds,” Copeland says. “That’s why I did five years. Crack.”
The volunteer, a 48-year-old man, also black, nods as he deposits a deflated football into the for-sale bin. “My cousin did seven in federal,” he tells Copeland. “Man, one of my best friends in high school, he had all the money. He had a Mercedes. He did real well with drugs. Unfortunately, sooner or later, everybody seems to get caught.”
As they talk, an older white woman wanders over and asks, “You here for court-ordered time?”
“Not this time,” the volunteer says. What he neglects to mention is that his name is Tim Scott, that he’s a U.S. senator — her senator — and that he’s running for election in the fall.
In the almost year and a half since being appointed to the Senate by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Scott, a conservative Republican, has embarked on an unconventional listening tour, wandering his state in blue jeans, talking to folks without ever saying who he is. He’s mopped up the floors of a burrito joint, manned a shoe shop and ridden the bus through rough neighborhoods in Charleston.
This year, he is poised to be the first black politician to win statewide election in South Carolina since Reconstruction. He’s young (for the Senate), affable and able to blend in where his colleagues would stand out — just try to imagine Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) talking about understanding the misguided allure of drug dealing, or being asked whether he had been assigned mandatory community service.
In short: Scott is everything the Republican Party could ask for. Yet in an age where new senators go through the supernova process almost instantaneously, the only black Republican in the Senate has chosen to be all but invisible in Washington and, at this moment, even in his home state.
If you ask Scott, it’s all part of the plan.
“If you want to build a relationship and build a rapport, then you don’t talk about specific issues first,” Scott says to me when no one else is listening. “This is about becoming credible. It’s hard to have a conversation with someone who lacks credibility.”
It’s a bit of an odd assertion — “This is about becoming credible” — coming as it does from a guy who is hiding his identity from everyone but a reporter. While there are reasons to conduct a “listening tour,” rarely do they have that much to do with listening. Scott is a steadfast conservative, not looking to alter his opinions so much as convince others that his party has something to offer. While a cynic might call this the move of a con artist, Scott prefers the term “salesman.”
“I sold doughnuts door to door, I sold vacuums door to door, I sold Amway door to door,” Scott says. “So for me, that’s what I do.”
He asks another Goodwill worker why he’s wearing sandals when it’s still chilly outside. He learns it’s because the man worked in a walk-in refrigerator at a Winn-Dixie supermarket for almost 20 years and runs hot from the experience. The conversation goes from there to how he lost his job at the supermarket, and from there to how church ended up saving him when he started to lose hope.
“If I were to talk about this,” he says a few minutes later as we walk through the Goodwill warehouse, “I’d talk about how many of these people are involved with their church, about how they are inspired by their community to make a difference.”
But just as many people working at Goodwill told Scott they were “motivated” by getting a paycheck. Not that it matters. Scott is anecdote-shopping, looking to tell a certain kind of story, in a way most of his Senate colleagues could never pull off. And in politics, what matters most is whether people believe the stories you tell.
At lunch, Scott explains what he has been up to.
“It’s really just the best way to talk to and try to understand people,” he says, picking at overcooked salmon. “To get away from spokespeople and just learn what’s really going on. . . . I feel like I have a lot in common with the average guy, because I am an average guy.”
Scott says he “has a heart for ministry.” He is prone to offering the tough love, up-from-your-bootstraps message that could come across as harsh if not for the fact that Scott has himself lived through some tough times.
And unlike other, more prominent black Republicans — Herman Cain or Ben Carson, for example — Scott isn’t likely to accuse black voters of being enslaved to the Democratic Party.
“That language doesn’t suit me,” Scott says. “It’s really hard to offend someone into changing their minds.”
Meanwhile, the GOP’s highest-profile attempts at minority outreach have come from Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who for the past several months has conducted an inner-city tour of the country. His biggest headline from the tour, however, came when he said “inner-city men” don’t know the “value and the culture of work.”
When asked about these guys, Scott sounds like a youth soccer coach forced to give every kid a participation trophy.
Rand Paul “has done a pretty good job; at least he’s trying,” Scott says. “Paul Ryan is out there a lot. [RNC Chairman] Reince Priebus gets a passing grade for trying.”
Scott puts down his fork, rubs his hand over his bald head and puts it this way: “You don’t necessarily need someone that’s black to teach black folks what’s possible, but it does help to have someone like me be the tip of the arrow.”
A teenage mentorship
Scott was born in Charleston and grew up in a single-parent household after the family fled from his father.
His mother, a nursing assistant, held various jobs to keep Scott and his brother, Ben, fed. Scott grew up “frustrated,” “irritated” and “saddened” by his lot in life, and by his freshman year of high school he nearly flunked. When he tells this story on stage, he likes to say: “When you fail English and Spanish, they don’t call you bilingual, they call you bi-ignant.”
It was around that time he met John Moniz, the white owner of a Chick-fil-A franchise. Moniz noticed that Scott, a regular customer, could afford only french fries, so he started giving him free sandwiches with a side of life lessons. He taught him conservative values and the mind-set to “think your way out of poverty.”
Moniz became a father figure, and Scott became a Republican. Moniz used to say he wanted to have a positive impact on the lives of a million people. When he died, Scott took over that goal, but upped the number to 1 billion.
Scott graduated from high school, went to a small Presbyterian college on a partial football scholarship and graduated from Charleston Southern University with a major in political science in 1988. Elected to the Charleston County Council in 1995 and subsequently the South Carolina House of Representatives, he was known for getting the Ten Commandments posted outside the Charleston County Council chambers.
That he started his own insurance company, was elected to the U.S. House in 2010 and was appointed to the Senate after the retirement of Jim DeMint makes his one of those stories that politicians can’t help but say “embodies the American Dream.”
And yet, he has turned down offers from the party to take a more high-profile role, declining, for example, to talk at numerous state conventions.
“Whatever work they’re going to do for 2014 or 2016,” he said, “they’re going to do without me, nationally.”
Search for common ground
For now, Scott’s main objective is to get elected — probably without much help from the black vote. Instead, he’ll need to win over legions of white voters.
Just a few miles away from the Goodwill, there’s the Greenville Museum and Library of Confederate History, a place where the director, Mike Couch, will tell you that slavery was in fact not racist.
“It was a matter of economics, most likely,” Couch says. He walks over to a wall covered with pictures of black Confederate soldiers. “We judge people by character, not skin color.”
Couch, who is white, is a fan of Scott’s.
“I’ll vote for him, sure,” he says. “He’s better than the other guy, Flimsy Lindsey Grahamnesty” — South Carolina’s other Republican senator, who is often accused by conservatives of being too moderate on such issues as immigration reform.
Scott’s election would make history, but not everyone thinks it would be a step forward.
“If you call progress electing a person with the pigmentation that he has, who votes against the interest and aspirations of 95 percent of the black people in South Carolina, then I guess that’s progress,” says Rep. James E. Clyburn, a black congressman who serves in the state’s Democratic leadership.
Scott got an F on the NAACP annual scorecard. He voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he voted to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress, opposed the Congressional Black Caucus’s budget proposal and voted to delay funding a settlement between the United States and black farmers who alleged that the federal government refused them loans because of their race.
Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington bureau director, says it’s great that Scott is reaching out to the community with messages of self-determination and religion, but that it’s not enough.
“He’s not running for preacher,” Shelton says. “We can tell when people are coming to sell snake oil.”
This isn’t to say that Scott can’t find common ground with the other side. He recently teamed up with Democratic Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), the only other black U.S. senator, on a bill to help create thousands of paid apprenticeships.
“Would I vote for him in South Carolina? No,” Booker says. “But do I think he is sincere of heart on many issues? Absolutely.”
The two see the same problems; they just differ on solutions.
“Most folks in the black community have the same answer for what they are looking for — more jobs and better opportunities,” Scott says over lunch. “What I’ve never heard yet is . . . ‘We need more food stamps.’ ”
Scott then remembers James Copeland from Goodwill.
“That’s a guy who knows he is better off working,” he says. “A guy who made mistakes in his life. You see that he was missing a finger?”
Scott pauses for dramatic effect. Did Copeland not pay back a drug dealer? Did he forget to punch out the toughest guy in the yard on his first day in prison?
I return to the Goodwill after leaving Scott to ask. In reality, Copeland lost the finger years ago at his last job, working for a chain-saw manufacturer. Something hooked onto his wedding ring, and when he jumped off a ladder the finger didn’t come with him.
But Copeland didn’t mind that Scott might someday use his story.
“Oh, wow, I thought he was just some guy off the street,” Copeland says. “He was really speaking on my level. I felt like I can relate to him. I’d vote for him. Absolutely.”