High school freshman Tim Scott could not afford Chick-fil-A sandwiches back in 1981, but the French fries were good and inexpensive. Eating those fries made him a success, a conservative and an odds-on favorite to be the next congressman from Charleston, S.C.
Mr. Scott has been garnering attention because he is a black Republican who won a primary over the son of the late one-time segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond. South Carolina acquaintances, though, are coming out of the woodwork to say Mr. Scott bears watching not because he is black but because he’s the real deal: industrious, principled, consistent, thoughtful. In a word, authentic.
But to hear him tell it, it all began with the fries.
Mr. Scott’s parents were split - his father was in the Air Force in Colorado - and his mother, he said, worked two eight-hour shifts daily. “She was a nurse’s assistant cleaning up other people’s feces,” he said. “That’s nobody’s definition of fun.” Despite her example of hard work, though, his own schoolwork showed no signs of similar dedication. “I literally failed four subjects at once: world geography, civics, Spanish and English. Those last two subjects showed I wasn’t bilingual, I was bi-ignorant.”
Young Mr. Scott did, however, hold down a part-time job taking tickets at a movie theater. The Chick-fil-A was next door. He bought fries there regularly. The restaurant’s proprietor, a guy named John Moniz - a “Christian conservative white Republican, although I didn’t know it at the time,” Mr. Scott said - “just started recognizing me, and one day he came up and sat down next to me and started talking.”
Moniz (now deceased) somehow struck a chord with the young customer. Moniz talked about the virtues of discipline and concentration. They talked often and built a cross-generational friendship. Something clicked. Young Scott started applying himself to his studies. He earned a partial football scholarship to Presbyterian College, transferred (leaving football behind) to Charleston Southern University, and earned a degree in political science.
“My mother taught me how to shoot for the stars, but [Moniz] taught me how to think it through,” Mr. Scott told me. “It’s about thinking your way out of poverty.”
Tim Scott did just that. Now 44, he owns an insurance agency (property, casualty, life) and part of a real estate agency. He became politically active, always as a Republican, and served 13 years as one of nine members of the Charleston County Council (county population: 330,368), the final four years as chairman. He was elected to the state legislature in 2008, then took his shot at Congress when U.S. Rep. Henry Brown retired. In the primary, not only did he defeat Paul Thurmond but also Carroll Campbell, namesake son of another former South Carolina governor.
“The reason he is so popular is that he never went native as a government guy,” said Burnet R. Maybank III, the state revenue director under former South Carolina Govs. Mark Sanford and David M. Beasley and the son of a longtime Charleston County councilman. “He believes in limited government and lower taxes, and he never went native against those beliefs. He’s low-key and very sincere, and he just tends to win people over because he is conscientious and hardworking. He has stuck to his guns during his entire service.”
To listen to Mr. Scott himself is to hear the clear echoes of former Housing and Urban Development secretary and vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, whom Mr. Scott revered. “That’s what I want to model as a public official. If it has to be done, let it be done by me with my own sweat equity. … The War on Poverty was four decades, and the same people are living in the same neighborhoods and the same bad houses, in the same poverty. A person who is full of compassion who is a conservative has to say that small business in a neighborhood creates jobs, not government. Government intervention does not lead to a more promising future. Entrepreneurship changes lives for real.” Also: “As a small-business owner, I cannot pay higher taxes and hire more people.”
Mr. Scott, though, seems far more comfortable talking about limiting government than Mr. Kemp was:
“If we are trying to honor the promises made to our senior citizens, how do you start new programs? Especially when 43 cents on the dollar are for deficit spending.” And: “There is nothing compassionate about an extra 99 weeks of unemployment benefits at the expense of unborn Americans and young Americans. It’s got to make cents as well as sense.”
Mr. Scott is pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, a Tea Party enthusiast and strongly supportive of the military. (One brother is a command sergeant-major in the Army, and the other a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.) He supports a moratorium on congressional earmarks. And he credits his mother in a baseball, hot dogs, apple-pie way.
“I am living my mother’s dream, he said. “She modeled the behavior she wanted us to replicate. … People need to know this country’s system works. … We need the patience necessary to delay our gratification for the promise of the future to come to fruition.”
The Democratic nominee against Mr. Scott is retired federal worker Ben Frasier, who has run 17 times previously without ever even winning his party’s nomination. The district is heavily Republican; it went for John McCain over Barack Obama by 14 points. Mr. Frasier seems to have no significant fundraising operation, nor any national party support. In short, Mr. Scott almost surely will be coming to Washington. When he arrives, he’ll steadily pursue a limited-government agenda that may well leave official Washington fit to be fried.
Quin Hillyer is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Times.