WASHINGTON — In a city where there is power in numbers, Tim Scott has come to occupy a rare and singular position. As the lone black Republican in the Senate, the South Carolinian is increasingly emerging as a crucial voice for his party on issues of race, a topic that has hovered over the GOP for decades and have only grown more pronounced in the age of Trump.
Scott, 53, didn’t sign up to be the racial conscience of the Republican Party. In fact, he actively sought to avoid it during his campaigns in a state with long and deep tensions. "I think he tried as hard as he could not to be the Republican that people run to on race issues," said former Rep. Trey Gowdy, one of Scott's close friends.
But almost by default, Scott has become that person — in part because of his status as one of just two black Republicans in Congress and because, as he observes, few others in the party have stepped up to the plate. And his influence is growing to the point of influencing judicial nominees put forward by the White House.
The latest example of Scott's weighty voice came just last week, when he was among the first to condemn Rep. Steve King’s comments defending White Nationalism, leading to a flurry of top Republicans denouncing the Iowa congressman who has a long history of racially insensitive remarks that have often gone ignored by GOP leaders.
“Some in our party wonder why Republicans are constantly accused of racism — it is because of our silence,” Scott wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post in reaction to King's comments.
And Scott has begun speaking out against some of the worst tendencies in his party with a purpose. “This is a time where we need to lean in to the conversation so that we have greater resolution and have more progress that follows that resolution,” he told NBC News in an interview last week.
Even as the 2018 elections produced the most ethnically and gender-diverse Congress in history, the Republican Party became more male and more white. Along with Scott, Rep. Will Hurd of Texas is the only other black Republican in Congress.
Scott has unnerved some conservatives and frustrated those on the left with how he addresses issues of race.
"I am doing what I can to ensure any issues are brought up in a constructive and positive way that allows for progress," Scott said. "These are things that will matter long after I’m gone in the Senate, and if I can move the needle at all, then I have done my job. If all I do is go on television and throw bombs for attention, then I’ve failed. It’s really that simple to me.”
When he almost single-handedly defeated two of Trump’s judicial court nominees last year over questions raised about their past records on diversity and racial discrimination issues, some conservatives were livid.
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Carrie Severino of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network has criticized Scott for his “capitulation to political correctness bordering on slander”for stopping those nominees, saying “he embraced liberal smears that are contradicted by the facts.”
But the White House has taken heed of Scott's concerns and now sends him information on nominees that could cause them problems. He has become a layer in the vetting process that didn’t exist before, according to a Republican familiar with the interactions.
"The administration values the opinions of Republicans and Democrats on all judicial nominees," a White House official told NBC News.
It's just one example of how Scott is influencing the party.
Scott has one of the most diverse staffs on Capitol Hill — he is only one of two senators with a black chief of staff and his aides are from many different nationalities and an array of ideologies, encouraging diversity in thought.
He was initially the only Republican to sign on to legislation that would make lynching a federal crime. After years nearly 200 years of attempts to pass the bill, according to the New York Times, legislation unanimously passed the Senate just before Christmas. Scott co-sponsored it with the two other black senators, Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California.
And his GOP colleagues are listening too. “Hearing Tim’s thoughts on these issues have certainly helped to inform my judgment over the years that I’ve gotten to know him,” Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn.
He has championed “Opportunity Zones,” including a provision in the Republican tax reform bill, to bring economic relief to distressed areas, an idea that has been supported by Democrats. He also ensured that single mothers receive some tax relief in the tax bill.
And after the “Unite the Right” White Supremacy rally in Charlottesville in 2017 where counter-protestor Heather Heyer was killed, Scott called out Trump for blaming “both sides” for the violence, telling Vice News that Trump’s “moral authority" was "compromised.”
Gowdy said that Scott took heat from Republicans in South Carolina for not standing with the president after Charlottesville. Gowdy said that Scott told him he was "challenged" for the better part of an hour at a South Carolina county GOP meeting in state.
After a series of fatal shootings of unarmed black men by police, Scott gave a series of floor speeches in the Senate on race. In one he revealed that he had been stopped by police seven times in one year for driving while black. He has also been stopped from entering the House and Senate office buildings because the Capitol Police didn’t believe he was a senator.
Gowdy said he once asked Scott why he drives a car with a U.S. Senate license plate when many members prefer not to be noticed while on the road. Gowdy said Scott responded by asking him, “how many times have you been stopped? I want people to know that I’m not a threat to them when they pull me over.”
Gowdy says that Scott, who is normally quiet and reluctant to insert himself into fights, chooses when to speak on issues involving race. “I think he’s been very selective and careful about when he does speak,” Gowdy said.
And that has led to him being criticized by some on the left who say he not doing enough to change his party.
After he called out Rep. King, the predominately black news outlet NewsOne criticized him for not taking “the next step and call for the racist to resign.”
Scott also came under fire for his support of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was criticized for unquestionably supporting law enforcement in controversial shootings of unarmed black men. He said he decided to support his former Senate colleague because he had taken the time to "know Jeff Sessions.”
Scott says that his devout Christian faith and his mother, who raised him and his two brothers alone, have helped to guide him through the business world and politics in a state with deep racial tensions where the late senator Strom Thurmond, a segregationist, served in the Senate for 48 years until 2003.
Gowdy said Scott’s voice is essential in the Republican Party if the party is to be a viable one in the future.
“You’re supposed to appeal to as many different people as you can as consistent with principle. It’s not to see how many groups you can alienate,” Gowdy said.