STRENGTHENING THE BLACK Republican vote ultimately falls under the purview of Michael Steele, the embattled chairman of the Republican National Committee. While Steele, an African-American, is happy to take some credit and shine some light on the historical nature of Scott’s run, the significance of Steele’s own nomination is not lost on him. Elected two weeks after Barack Obama was sworn in as the first Black president, Steele’s win was viewed by many as the Republican Party attempting to compete in a “first Blacks” contest. But, Steele sees the election of Obama as a tipping point for Blacks of any party.
“My experience, Tim Scott’s experience–our experience–is very different coming from the parts of the country we came from, how we were raised,” Steele says. “There is a wall that has a picture of every chairman of the RNC outside my office. I’ll be the first Black face on it. That does have an impact on how people look at this job and the role of the chairman,” he continues. “Stuff that my
predecessors weren’t criticized for, I am being criticized.”
Through it all, Steele maintains that he has stayed committed to the job of running the RNC, which is tasked with supporting candidates and raising money. He says he took a deliberate approach to widening the Republican tent and reaching out to more African-Americans and minorities.
“Working through our coalition department, which I created when I came into office, [our approach] was to quietly go into the communities and identify these candidates as the ‘Breaking New Grounds’ candidates. And it was just a matter of helping them and supporting them. Some people look at me cockeyed for supporting these guys, but guess what, we now have African-American nominees for U.S. Congress across the country.”
Meanwhile, Scott, a regimented Republican, who has proven to be gaffe proof, is careful about crediting Steele for his candidacy. “I would think that he is trying harder, but I don’t know,” Scott says, when asked about his impact on minority candidates. “He didn’t recruit me, so it’s hard for me to tell.”
THE DAY AFTER his talk with Black leaders, Tim Scott waits at the end of a small receiving line at Summerville, S.C.,’s Faith Assembly of God church. He has just given a talk to a room of men and boys about the importance of mentorship that was part-sermon and part-moral motivational set. In this crowd, there were no dissenters. One white man steps to Scott, lifts his chin and pokes out his chest. He pumps Scott’s hand slowly. “You were the first man of color I voted for in my life,” he says in a slow and measured draw.
Scott’s smile is frozen.
“Well, I thank you for that vote,” he replies. The man turns on his heels and walks out the room in firm measured steps, leaving Scott behind to receive the blessings of the next well-wisher.
The exchange leaves two young fellows slack jawed, their eyes as wide as saucers. But Scott is unfazed. “You gotta remember, I’ve been an elected Republican for 15 years. So most people who live here have voted for a man of color in the Republican primary,” he later says. “But it was a bit surprising,” he admits, with a chuckle. “You hear everything, man.”
Despite the recent pledges of support, there are many questions still swirling about his commitment to his “community” (read: Black community).
Tearing a page out of Barack Obama’s playbook, Scott tends to keep talk of race away from his campaign. To be sure, he is aware of his history-making run, but where Obama had moments like his heralded “race speech” to clear any doubts about his “Blackness,” Scott won’t allow his race to enter his race. “It’s just not that important to me,” he says. “What’s important is advancing the issues of our community. Our community can be the Black community, the white community, the majority community. It doesn’t matter. Wherever I am, that’s my community.”
On the other hand, J.C. Watts thinks race is an important factor that Republicans at all levels have gotten wrong time and again.
“We Democrats and Republicans are so naive to think that race isn’t an issue today,” he says. “I never led with it, but I didn’t run from being Black.” He continues, “One of the values of having Tim Scott, is understating that the Republican party needs a deeper relationship with the Black community.”
Meanwhile, Scott refuses to assess his historical run or to place his race as a Black man into any greater context.
“If it was never spoken about, if you didn’t hear Tim Scott [will be] the first Black Republican congressman from the South since Reconstruction, there might be a place for me to talk about it,” he says, his voice straining to make the point. “But everybody acknowledges it for me, so why state the obvious?”
Along with increasing the funding and troops into Afghanistan, this is one of the rare points of agreement Scott shares with the president. “President Obama did not make race an issue,” he says. “Why should I?”