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Tim Scott's frustrating and fated fight for police reform: 'This is my issue'

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U.S. Senator Tim Scott, R-S.C. held a press conference to discuss the federal Justice Act on Monday, June 22, 2020, in North Charleston. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott answered his cell phone, grateful to hear from someone who wasn't asking him for anything.

It had been a long Wednesday for South Carolina's junior Republican senator.

From the moment he woke up, he was ricocheting across Washington: Prayer breakfast to press conference; committee hearing to media interviews; floor votes to a rare floor speech.

All the while, his phone kept ringing as he tried to build momentum for a police reform package he hoped would change America — all of America.

It was perhaps the second-longest Wednesday of his life.

The longest will always be June 17, 2015, the day a white supremacist walked into Charleston's Emanuel AME Church and opened fire on 12 African Americans, killing nine. 

On that terrible night, Scott called Trey Gowdy. On this Wednesday exactly five years later, Gowdy called Scott.

The senator was exhausted. It was hours after he introduced the Justice Act, his massive bill responding to a national reckoning over police brutality and systemic racism.

His voice was raw, and he needed encouragement.

"They can't do it without you," Gowdy, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina and Scott's closest friend, said. "You can do it without them." 

There was silence on the other end of the line as Scott absorbed the statement, but Gowdy recalled, "I could hear him smiling."

America Protests Congress

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., accompanied by Republican senators speaks at a news conference to announce a Republican police reform bill on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Washington. File/Andrew Harnik/AP

A national time of calling

As the Senate's only Black Republican, Scott wields unique political power, but especially in this moment. While leading his party's most ambitious policing proposal in years, he bears a burden that his white Republican colleagues will never fully understand. 

In an unprecedented political season of nationwide protests, in the middle of a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted communities of color and with just months to go until a presidential election, Scott is in the middle of it all.

He begged Democrats to consider his 106-page GOP proposal as a starting point, even as dozens of civil rights and racial justice groups vehemently urged lawmakers to oppose it.

He argued Americans should not be offered "a false binary choice" of either supporting communities of color or supporting law enforcement, even as protesters called on their elected leaders to profess that Black lives matter.

All of this is on the shoulders of someone who grew up in North Charleston, raised by a single mom, and whose political career started with a run for County Council.

That was then. Today, his political ascent has been grasped by conservatives as a hope of the party, including Karl Rove, the legendary Republican strategist who transformed George W. Bush into an American president.

In a June 10 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Rove heaped 773 words of praise for Scott's leadership and predicted he had the opportunity to "play the role of his country's and his party's conscience in the days ahead."

Trump signs executive order on police reform

President Donald Trump speaks during an event on police reform, in the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, in Washington. File/Evan Vucci/AP

This moment: George Floyd

Republicans had to respond.

When protests erupted after the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a groundswell of public support for police reform in America followed.

Massive gatherings for racial justice cropped up across the country. Anguish, anger and grief spilled out into the streets in large metros like Washington, D.C., and in small towns like Solebury, Pa., population 8,558. 

It became a movement on a scale not seen in America since the decades-long struggle for civil rights for African Americans to gain equal rights under the law.

Democrats dominated the airwaves.

Scott recognized the moment sooner than the rest of his party. On June 3, he approached Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell at a closed-door Republican luncheon and asked to write his party's bill — their response — on police reform. Scott's pitch was direct: He told McConnell he is the only Republican senator who has experienced racial profiling and discrimination.

Scott, 54, estimates he has been pulled over more than 18 times in the past 20 years for no other reason than "driving while Black." 

He broached the subject in 2016 in a series of speeches on the Senate floor.

Recently, he spoke to The Post and Courier, recalling to the very date the first time he was pulled over by law enforcement: June 5, 1987.

Scott was driving a 1981 blue Chevrolet Chevette in Hanahan, a city about 15 miles north of Charleston where Scott now lives. Scott saw the blue lights in his rearview mirror and pulled over.

It was late and dark, and the officer told him it was his flickering driver's side headlight that led to him being stopped. The officer's body language said otherwise.

"The way he walked up to the car," Scott said. "He had his hand nearly on his gun and it scared me half-to-death."

At that moment, Scott said, he felt belittled, very small, scared and angry.

"It became really clear, really fast to me that I was the problem, not my headlight."

Almost exactly 33 years after that first police stop, McConnell agreed to give Scott the lead on the Republican's police reform push.

Despite sharing common ground with the bill presented by House Democrats, there would still be huge differences between the proposals. Democrats wanted sweeping mandates: no more qualified immunity for police, no more choke holds, and no more no-knock warrants in federal drug cases.

The Republican bill focused on incentives.

For example, the Justice Act would have offered federal funding for state and local police departments that implement policies limiting the use of choke holds. Those that didn't wouldn't get reform-pegged grant money.

To address excessive use of force, the Republican measure would have incentivized law enforcement agencies to provide officers with deescalation and bystander training. Democrats wanted to make it easier to prosecute police officers for misconduct.

The GOP legislation did not eliminate qualified immunity. Both bills made lynching a federal hate crime.

As the vote neared on Scott's bill, signs of trouble emerged.

On the eve of the tally, California Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the Justice Act "a completely watered-down fake reform bill." 

A trio of leading Democratic senators — Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Kamala Harris of California, and Cory Booker of New Jersey  — sent a letter to McConnell calling the GOP bill "so threadbare and lacking in substance that it does not even provide a proper baseline for negotiations."

With so many negative responses swirling around Washington, even Gowdy questioned whether Scott would be able to deliver.

"He's just not good at the politics of negotiation," Gowdy said in a recent interview. "He assumes if you're asking for something, that that's what you really want — that it's not a starting point."  

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Another moment: Walter Scott

Timothy Eugene Scott was born in North Charleston in 1965, one month after the nation outlawed voting discrimination.

Raised by a single mother who worked 16-hour shifts as a nurse's aide, Scott grew up in working-class poverty. His parents divorced when he was 7, and Scott lived most of his childhood in a cramped two-bedroom rental on a dirt road. He shared a single-bedroom with his mother, Frances, and his older brother, Ben. The three of them lived with his mother's parents.

His grandfather Artis Ware, left school in the third grade to pick cotton. His grandmother, Louida, cleaned houses.

As a child, Scott thought his only way out of poverty would be on a football scholarship.

"I felt like there was no hope in this country for a little Black boy like me," he said on the Senate floor days ago.

When Walter Scott was killed in 2015 after he was shot in the back five times while running away from a white North Charleston police officer, Scott wept.

Walter Scott, 50, died after he was pulled over for a broken brake light.

"The images of Walter Scott being shot down still haunt my memory. I had played in those neighborhoods, and I knew the community well. My heart was broken," Scott wrote in his memoir.

When Scott saw the footage of Floyd's death — gasping for air and crying out for his mom as a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck — he was reminded of Walter Scott and what was happening with Black men in North Charleston. 

Scott didn't want that to happen in his hometown, where minority residents had long complained about being targeted for minor traffic stops by officers.

After the death of Walter Scott in 2015, he called Ed Bryant.

Bryant wasn't just the president of the North Charleston NAACP at the time, he was someone Scott could always count on. The man had once been his neighbor and the guy who fixed his temperamental used car as a teenager, even when Scott couldn't afford to pay for parts.

Bryant still remembers what the senator said when they got on the phone.

"He said it was tragic. He said it was tragic," Bryant said.

"What is going on in North Charleston?" Scott asked Bryant.

"Man you know what’s going on," Bryant replied. "Same thing that’s always been going on."

Of more than 22,000 traffic stops in 2014 in North Charleston, a reported 16,730 of them involved African Americans. Most, or 10,600 stops, involved Black men.

Six months after Walter Scott was killed, Sen. Tim Scott (the two are not related) introduced the Walter Scott Notification Act, a bill that would withhold federal money from states that fail to maintain data on officer-involved shootings. Only U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, signed on as a cosponsor. It died in Grassley's judiciary committee.

After other failed attempts, Scott this month put his Walter Scott bill in his Justice Act, introducing the full package on June 17, the five-year anniversary of the Charleston church shooting.

He warned his colleagues something needed to be done now, or "more people in communities of color will have less confidence in the institutions of power and authority in this nation because we missed the moment."

He added, "We missed it five years ago. We don't have to miss it now." 

Trump Scott Rose Garden

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., center, arrives for an event on police reform, in the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, in Washington. File/Evan Vucci/AP

The death of his bill 

As the Senate votes came in this past Wednesday afternoon, it became clear that Scott's Justice Act was destined to die.

Just two Democrats — Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — and one independent, Argus King of Maine, had crossed over to support Scott's bill.

Scott, who for weeks had been saying his measure was not about November politics, suddenly found himself and his legislation in the center of a partisan fight during a major presidential election year.

"Who is a better guardian of the civil rights of African Americans when it comes to police reform? The NAACP or Mitch McConnell?" Schumer asked ahead of the vote. "If this bill were such a good path to reform, why wouldn't civil rights organizations from one end of America to another say, go forward, maybe we'll get something done? Because they know the bill is a ruse and that's the way it's designed."

Majority Whip John Thune, R-South Dakota, rose to defend Scott and his bill.

"I can tell you Senator Scott doesn't view this as a messaging exercise. He views this as something that is deeply personal to him," Thune said. "Unfortunately, he's experienced the pain of racism, not only as a young boy growing up the South, but as an adult and as a United States senator. He wants a solution. We should all want a solution, but that starts by getting on the bill."

It wasn't enough. The vote failed 55-45.

Afterward, an incredulous and visibly frustrated Scott found himself on the Senate floor tearing into Democrats in a 33-minute, 51-second speech.

He said he offered Democrats 20 amendments to make the bill better. He said they walked out when he tried to find compromise. Pushing back about questions raised about the credibility of the bill, Scott took it personally.

"The actual problem is not what is being offered, it is who is offering it. It took me a long time to figure out the most obvious thing in the room," Scott said. 

"I have dealt with the problem of 'who' before. It's one of the reasons why I went to Senator McConnell to say I want to lead this conversation. I am the guy. I am your guy, Mitch, because this is my issue," Scott said. "This is an issue for every poor kid growing up in every poor neighborhood in this nation who feels like when I leave my home for a jog, I might not come back."

The sting of loss was unfamiliar for Scott, whose political career has been filled with more victories than defeats.

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U.S. Senator Tim Scott, R-S.C., held a press conference to discuss the federal Justice Act on Monday, June 22, 2020, in North Charleston. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

He first ran for a seat on Charleston County Council in 1995 and won. From there, he would eventually jump to the Statehouse, Congress and be picked by former Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the vacancy created when Jim DeMint resigned his Senate seat in 2012.

Even when he found himself routinely pushing back on racially insensitive comments made by President Donald Trump, the standard-bearer of his party, Scott found ways to win.

"We have to consider how Tim Scott is trying to use his party to get what he wants," said Leah Wright Rigueur, a policy professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of "The Loneliness of the Black Republican."

"You have to consider his goal. Is his goal to be a Trump whisperer, to be in the inner circle where he is whispering in Trump's ear and getting things in return even if it's watered down? Or is it to be the savior, to be the Republican who did the right thing?"

After the president said there were "fine people" on "both sides" of a neo-Nazi, white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Va., Scott met with Trump in a one-on-one meeting at the White House.

He walked out with the president's full support for his Opportunity Zones legislation to help revitalize economically distressed communities.

He tried again, and found the president to be supportive of permanent funding for historically Black colleges and universities, as well as stem-cell research for sickle cell anemia, a disease that disproportionately impacts people of color.

In an interview, Scott said he considers himself to be "an eternal optimist," but he made a concession.

"I'm typically wrong on the timeline," he said.

When Scott was elected student government president in high school, he tried to change his corner of the world in North Charleston. 

“I was going to solve race relations then. I was going to make sure we all saw each other as equal and that life would be perfect in five years,” Scott said.

He tried to laugh it off, but his gaze fell downward. He shook his head.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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