Ironies abound with Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina set to become just the fifth black to serve in the U.S. Senate since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era — and only the second who won’t be representing Illinois.
Scott, named today by Gov. Nikki Haley to replace fellow Republican Jim DeMint next month, will represent the state that produced slavery’s most fervant defenders and that was first to secede from the Union following Abe Lincoln’s election as president in 1860. Scott’s House district, which he initially won in 2010, includes Fort Sumter, where in April of 1861 the first shots were fired in the Civil War.
Scott’s political rise included serving as the co-chairman of Strom Thurmond’s final Senate campaign in 1996. That would be the same Thurmond who during the bulk of his career was an ardent segregationist and who in 1948 ran for president as a so-called “Dixiecrat” — carrying four states, including South Carolina.
The senator he knew and aided “had nothing to do with that,” Scott told the New York Times, noting that Thurmond had changed his tune on racial issues.
In his first House race, Scott won a runoff for the Republican nomination against Paul Thurmond, the former senator’s son. He cruised to victory in the general election, with 65 percent of the vote, and won re-election last month with 62 percent.
Scott, 47, has been strongly identified with the Tea Party movement, and in Congress he’s adhered to its principles — he was among the 22 House Republicans, for instance, who in August 2011 voted against the deal to raise the federal debt ceiling that his party leaders finally hashed out with President Barack Obama to barely avert a government loan default.
That type of voting record — plus the obvious need for Republicans to diversify their public face, given America’s changing demographics — had made Scott the odds-on favorite for the Senate appointment ever since DeMint, 61, announced earlier this month he had decided to leave the chamber to head the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.
Ed Brooke of Massachusetts bears the distinction of being the first black senator after Reconstruction ended by the early 1880s — and the South began erecting the racially discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws that once would have kept Scott from even being able to register to vote. Brooke was elected in 1966 and he was, like Scott, a Republican – but of a much different political slant. The party once included a liberal wing, and Brooke, who earlier this year turned 93, was part of it. He was a strong advocate, for example, of abortion rights.
After Brooke was defeated for a third term in 1978, the Senate remained all-white until Democrat Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois won election in 1992. She lost re-election in 1998, but Illinois again filled the Senate’s racial void with Obama in 2oo4. Filling out the remainder of Obama’s term after his 2008 White House win was Roland Burris, another African-American Democrat. Burris didn’t run for a full term in 2010, and the seat was won that year by Republican Mark Kirk.