WASHINGTON – The GOP is looking for an answer on how to respond to national outrage over the police killing of George Floyd. And they are looking to Sen. Tim Scott to provide it.
The question is whether Scott, the lone black GOP senator, will be able to pull Republicans behind legislation in the roiling aftermath of Floyd’s death. That challenge is steep enough in a mostly white party led by self-proclaimed “law and order” President Donald Trump. But Scott also is batting back at members of the black community accusing him of allowing Republicans to use him in an election year to right racial wrongs.
Scott, who has kept lines of communication open with Trump even after the president called white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., “good people,” is asking critics: Who better?
“Not surprising the last 24 hours have seen a lot of “token” “boy” or “you’re being used” in my mentions,” Scott tweeted Wednesday. “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?”
Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked painful upheaval and protests against systemic racism in the United States. But it also posed a stark test for the white Republicans who control the Senate. As Floyd's funeral was held in Houston on Tuesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell struck a new tone and acknowledged that almost all Senate Republicans, unlike Democrats, are white.
“None of us have had the experience of being an African American in this country and dealing with this discrimination,” McConnell, who is up for reelection alongside Trump, told reporters. “I think the best way for the Senate Republicans to go forward on this is to listen to one of our own, who’s had these experiences.”
McConnell spoke after Scott finished briefing Senate Republicans on the legislation, which in part would establish a national database for police misconduct. Floyd’s brother, Philonise, challenged Congress Wednesday to “stop the pain” with police reforms. Scott said he was talking with the White House, but not Trump so far, to agree on a package of legislation.
The 54-year-old former House member describes himself as “the son of a son of a son of a slave,” a descendant of a West African family who arrived in the U.S. aboard a slave ship, probably in Charleston, S.C., two centuries ago.
“For all of my life and for all of my family’s heritage, we had tried to avoid being confrontational,” Scott writes in “Opportunity Knocks: How Hard Work, Community and Business Can Improve Lives and End Poverty.” “Always, we believed, the primary aim should be to find common ground in order to move forward.”
In September 2017, Trump summoned the senator to the Oval Office to discuss Scott’s criticism of the president’s response to the race riots in Charlottesville, Va. — notably, Trump’s description of the white supremacists involved as being among the “very fine people on both sides.” Scott writes that the president was gracious — and that he walked out with the president’s commitment to opportunity zones for poverty-stricken cities. The proposal passed as part of the tax cut bill signed into law that year.
The police killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and others have made problems with police conduct and accountability hard for Republicans to ignore. Scott’s legislation is part of a burst of GOP-written bills on the subject. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky wants to stop sending surplus U.S. military equipment to local law enforcement. And Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah is backing several bipartisan bills to change police practices.
But the challenge is different for Scott, in part because of the trust issues between the black community, the Republican Party and McConnell. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said in a telephone interview that Scott will have succeeded if he “produces a good product.”
“I think that Tim has the background, he has the experiences that are necessary to bring Republican senators to the realization that this law enforcement issue is real and needs to be dealt with,” Clyburn said in a telephone interview. “I would hope that he would engage with enough of the other members to make sure that whatever he comes up with will have buy-in from others in his conference."
There are signs that they’re listening. GOP senators, who risk losing control of the chamber in the November election, are distancing themselves from Trump’s provocative response as the “Black Lives Matter” movement gains support.
On Tuesday, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Scott had told their Bible study group that he'd been stopped by police in Charleston multiple times, even as a public official, for being black at the wrong place and the wrong time.
"During these last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about what Tim Scott told us,” Alexander said on the Senate floor. “One result of George Floyd’s killing is that black Americans are telling more stories like Tim Scott’s.”
At the political intersection, Scott on Wednesday addressed his critics in the black community who chafed at his role.
“Don’t throw ‘you’re the only black guy they know’ at me either,” Scott tweeted. He’s one of three black members of the Senate, he noted, the others being Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California. “Stop pretending there’s some huge racial diversity gap in the Senate.”
It is true, though, that the GOP’s constituency and Trump’s base of support are overwhelmingly white. And though Trump insists he’s done more for black Americans than any other president, his rhetoric often carries racial overtones. Last year, Trump tweeted that four female House members of color, known as the “squad,” should “go back” to where they came from. All four are American citizens.
Scott on Wednesday called himself an optimist.
“History is a teacher,” he said. “The president has been receptive the last three years on the priorities that I’ve brought to him,” he added. “Hopefully he’ll have the same approach.”
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