02:04 - Source: CNN
GOP senator shares struggle with police prejudice (2016)
CNN  — 

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, said he offered an idea to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Scott wanted to come by and talk about some proposals he had for reforming police.

At the time, many rank-and-file members were dismissive that anything could happen on an issue most viewed as being the job of state and local governments, not Congress. But the next day, Scott told CNN that McConnell’s office called and the meeting was set up. McConnell didn’t just listen. He asked Scott, the only black senator in the Republican conference, to lead a small group of members in developing a framework that they could present to the rest of the GOP senators.

“He is one of our strongest members,” McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in an interview with CNN on Thursday. “He is responsible, for example, for economic opportunity zones, which were a major feature of the tax reform bill that we passed and the President signed into law. He was a major player on criminal justice reform, one of our most respected members. And also he has experienced directly – as recently as his time in the Senate – the kind of discrimination we have seen on full display across the country.”

At a time when the Republican Party is grappling with how to respond to calls to confront the country’s history of injustice, deep divisions and systems of inequality in policing, Scott – a 54-year-old who grew up in North Charleston, South Carolina, and once dreamed of becoming a minister, not a politician – finds himself leading the party on an issue his Republican President has fumbled time and time again.

While some lawmakers call out President Donald Trump publicly, Scott’s disagreements with the President have largely played out behind the scenes. Scott declined Thursday to lend much insight into conversations he has had with the White House about his policing legislation recently and argued that he has found more success in hashing out differences with Trump privately, not in the public eye.

“I think a critique is best in a one-on-one environment. When you don’t like something that has happened, you are better sharing that one on one. That is what the Bible reminds me to do, so I try to do that. I am not big on public critiques if it is not necessary,” Scott said, adding, “Sometimes … it is necessary.”

Scott’s policing proposal, which is expected to be unveiled next week, builds on legislation he started working on in 2015 after the murder of Walter Scott, a black man who was shot and killed by a police officer in the senator’s hometown. The “Walter Scott Notification Act,” which now also includes Floyd’s name, would require the creation of a national database of police use-of-force incidents that resulted in death.

“It felt like sometimes the good Lord puts you where you need to be before you knew you had to be there,” Scott told CNN in an interview Thursday. “This is an opportunity for me to do what it is I am called to do. I have said it several times before. God made me black on purpose. Perhaps a part of the purpose is where I am right now.”

That legislation is just one piece of a broader effort Scott is pushing now along with his colleagues to encourage state and local governments to offer more training, study police best practices and incentivize the use of body cameras. But the GOP bill, which is far more conservative than an effort being pushed by Democrats to ban chokeholds and require more sweeping changes in police departments across the country, has a long way to go before it would be signed into law and it is still unclear if the President would support it.

US Rep. Tim Scott speaks Monday to reporters at the South Carolina Statehouse after being introduced by then-Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the vacant US Senate seat vacated by the departing DeMint in December 2012.

A fight for tax overhaul

Since coming to Congress in 2010 as a conservative on a tea party wave, Scott has largely focused his agenda in Washington on the economy, creating jobs and lowering taxes.

He’s also been a leader in securing millions in funding for historically black colleges and universities. His efforts on the 2017 tax bill got him noticed by colleagues, who remember Scott not only secured his “Opportunity Zone” package in the bill, which gave investors tax breaks to develop in low-income areas, but also that he worked with leadership to sell the broader package to on-the-fence members.

“A lot of my colleagues in the Senate are what some might describe as pushy,” Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, told CNN in an interview. “There are some who are able to be outspoken, but in a way that never makes you feel pushed – instead, in a way that makes you feel like you were persuaded. Tim is one of those rare politicians.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa who worked closely with Scott on tax and criminal justice revisions, said he has long been impressed with Scott’s ability to explain complicated issues simply to the conference, which can be deeply divided on policy.

“He is always well prepared. I think there is a lot of ways to get power in the Senate, but I think being knowledgeable and being willing to explain it with regard to any position you take – he seems to be well prepared on almost anything,” Grassley said.

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of GOP leadership, described Scott’s efforts on the tax bill as the moment the conference turned to him for leadership and why McConnell turned to him last week to lead on policing.

“He was a major factor in the tax bill. I think that is where a lot of members started to see how talented he was, both as a communicator and a person who masters details,” Blunt recalled.

00:59 - Source: CNN
Scott: Tax reform about people, not numbers

Scott has also built relationships across the aisle, serving as the current co-chairman of the Senate’s Wednesday morning prayer group and often working behind the scenes to find consensus on legislation that may not be among the big ticket items that get covered in the Senate. Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, said he and Scott first bonded over their roles in local government when they worked on the same floor in one of the Senate office buildings.

But Coons says they have grown even closer over the years through their shared involvement with a group called Faith and Politics. Coons joined Scott for a pilgrimage to South Carolina a year after the shooting at Mother Emanuel, a historic black church in Charleston where a white supremacist murdered nine people in 2015 as they completed a Bible study. Coons described it as a “powerful weekend.”

“I have always found Scott to be fair, responsive, thoughtful and someone who I really enjoy serving with,” Coons said.

President Donald Trump listens to Sen. Tim Scott during a working session in the Oval Office of the White House in February 2018.

Scott and Trump

In a Republican conference that is often in lockstep with the President, Scott is a reliably conservative member. He voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. He led on the tax bill, and isn’t a constant critic of Trump.

But there have been moments when Scott has pushed his party and spoken up.

“I guess my philosophy, if there is one, is when everyone is shouting and talking, it is time for me to be quiet. When everybody is quiet, it is time for me to speak up. It is very seldom in the Senate where everybody is quiet, so when those instances arise, it is a chance to not only be heard, but make progress,” Scott said.

In January 2018, when the President referred to some African nations as “****hole countries” in a private meeting with lawmakers on immigration, Scott admonished the comments, saying that “our strength lies in our diversity, including those who came here from Africa, the Caribbean and every other corner of the world. To deny these facts would be to ignore the brightest part of our history.”

When Trump said there were good people “on both sides” of a violent 2017 clash involving white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, Scott went to the White House and had a private conversation with the President on racism in America.

“What I try to do with the President is share with him a different perspective,” Scott told CNN on Thursday. “Something that is a win-win for him and win for the American people. After Charlottesville, the win-win was bringing to his attention that there was something wrong with his comments and that those comments actually makes it harder for him to do his job for the entire nation.”

When writings criticizing multiculturalism surfaced from judiciary nominee Ryan Bounds, Scott threatened to block him. With Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, expressing the same concerns, the White House withdrew Bounds’ nomination.

Scott said at the time that he “had not tried to convince anybody to do anything. I just shared my thoughts, and others said they were willing to join and either ask for more information or simply say no.”

Sen. Tim Scott is administered an oath as his mother Frances looks on, by Vice President Joe Biden during a swearing-in ceremony in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber on January 03, 2017.

Tough conversations

“I think you can have a tough conversation with Tim Scott and not realize you had a tough conversation. That is the gift he has,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, said of Scott’s approach in the conference.

In recent days, Scott has also spoken out against online critics for accepting the job of leading his party on policing reform at all.

Scott tweeted earlier this week that it’s “not surprising the last 24 hours have seen a lot of ‘token’ ‘boy’ or ‘you’re being used’ in my mentions. Let me get this straight … you DON’T want the person who has faced racial profiling by police, been pulled over dozens of times or been speaking out for YEARS drafting this?”

Asked about the tweet, Scott said he believed so many of the comments on Twitter over the last few days attacking him for working on policing legislation with Republicans were “intended to be hurtful.”

“They are intended to be polarizing. They are intended to be negative. I always try to remember that the person speaking doesn’t know me at all. Their opinion can’t matter very much. If they were very educated on our opportunity agenda, maybe they would think differently,” Scott said. “But, if they want to hold me out as a ‘token’ or an ‘uncle Tom’ or whatever the latest fad in being negative is, that is on them. That is a stain on their soul, not mine.”

Over the years, Scott has also grown more outspoken about sharing his personal experiences with policing in the US.

Blunt told CNN that when he was grappling with the situation in Ferguson in 2014, Scott was a person he talked to regularly for guidance and advice.

“He and I talked a lot during the Ferguson situation. He made an impression on me in the different ways a young, black man has to think about dealing with the police vs. the way my sons think about dealing with the police,” Blunt said.

In 2016, Scott gave a series of speeches on the Senate floor in which he emphasized there were “wounds that have existed for more than a generation” and the responsibility of “the American family to work together to heal” them. He surprised many of his colleagues when he explained that he was still stopped by police, sometimes even on the Capitol grounds – where a Senate pin clearly identified who he was.

“I recall walking into an office building just last year after being here for five years. The officer looked at me with a little attitude and said, ‘The pin I know. You I don’t. Show me your ID,’ ” Scott said. “I will tell you I was thinking to myself either he thinks I am committing a crime impersonating a member of Congress or … or what? Well, I will tell you that later that evening, I received a phone call apologizing for the behavior. “

Scott added it was “at least” the third call he had received from a police chief or a supervisor since he had been in the US Senate.

Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, arrives for a committee hearing in May on new tests to diagnose Covid-19 in Washington.

A partisan divide

Scott says that in recent days, he has not only been working on the Republican legislation but also having conversations with his colleagues across the aisle. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, who worked with Scott on criminal justice issues, said the current outlines he has seen don’t go “far enough.”

Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, says he has been in contact with Scott and did not want to comment on his proposals yet, although he said that now was a time for “bold” and not incremental change.

“This is a time to call for bold change. I’m again not going to talk about these discussions I’m having. This is the time for, to end this lack of accountability, lack of transparency, and many of the practices that are causing death in our country,” Booker said.

The Republican proposal will put more of the onus on states to institute best practices and create commissions on policing and the challenges faced by black men in the US. Scott’s proposal is not expected to include a ban on chokeholds, a key priority for Democrats.

The timing is also still uncertain. Democrats plan to vote on their own legislation before the end of the month, but McConnell has not laid out a timeline for when the GOP’s bill could come to the floor.

CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.