WASHINGTON — Tim Scott of South Carolina was sworn into office Thursday on a historic day that saw him become the first African-American United States senator from the South since Reconstruction and the upper chamber’s only current black member.
As the only current African-American Republican member of Congress, Scott’s elevation from the House of Representatives to replace former Sen. Jim DeMint makes him a national figure just two years after he arrived in Washington following the 2010 tea party-fueled elections that gave his party control of the House of Representatives.
“Amazing,” said Scott, his mother standing by his side, after being sworn into office by Vice President Joe Biden.
DeMint, who resigned the Senate to lead the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, and fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina escorted Scott into the Senate for the swearing-in on the Senate floor. It was followed by a ceremonial swearing-in in the ornate Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol.
In a reflection of the significance of Scott’s promotion, both for the nation and for a Republican Party seeking to become more diverse, dozens of news photographers and TV cameras recorded the ceremonial event, more than those for other new senators.
While Scott downplays race and declined to join the Congressional Black Caucus, the North Charleston, S.C., native said he understands that he now is in a more significant position.
“I’m certainly aware,” Scott said in an interview. “I haven’t missed the fact that there is a uniqueness about my presence in the Senate, yes.”
Scott, though, said he feels no added pressure because of his increased visibility.
“Each senator has the responsibility of representing their state and the nation,” Scott said. “That’s plenty of pressure by itself.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley chose Scott to succeed DeMint, the hard-line conservative senator who surprised colleagues last month in announcing that he would leave Congress two years into his second Senate term.
Graham, a Republican in his second Senate term, welcomed Scott as the new junior senator from South Carolina, a state that for years has launched major political figures who’ve regularly produced national headlines, from the late Sen. Strom Thurmond and former Gov. Mark Sanford to DeMint and Graham.
“Tim will hit the ground running in the Senate,” Graham said in an interview. “He is a strong fiscal, social and national security conservative. He is also one of the most decent people I’ve ever met in politics.”
Scott, 47, grew up poor in a single-parent home in North Charleston, raised by a mom, Frances Scott, who worked 16-hour days. Scott became a high school football star, college graduate and State Farm insurance agent before entering politics.
His new U.S. Senate post continues a meteoric rise for Scott. Just over four years ago, he was wrapping up a 13-year tenure on the Charleston County Commission before serving two years in the South Carolina House of Representatives. Then, in 2010, he emerged from a crowded Republican primary field to defeat several well-known opponents and gain election to Congress.
Ryan Frazier, a black Republican businessman who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2010, was among Scott’s friends who joined him in Washington to help celebrate his big day.
“It’s really exciting – for our country, really – to see a guy of his caliber elevated to the Senate,” Frazier said. “I think he’s going to do great things for the country. As an African-American, I’m very proud that Tim is now in the United States Senate. It just says a lot about our country and the fact that we need diverse folks representing us all over this country.”
Among other friends and relatives on hand were Scott’s brother Ben, their aunt, plus the widow, sons and daughters-in-law of the late John Moniz, who became a mentor and father figure to Scott after Moniz hired Scott to work at the Chick-fil-A restaurant he managed.
When Scott entered the Senate to be sworn into office, it was only the second time he’d been in the 19th century chamber.
Just before taking the oath of office, he looked up into the visitors’ gallery and caught the eye of his mother and his brother.
“It’s a new chapter – a new opportunity for me to continue to tell the story that I think is important to the future of our country, which is that a good economy makes all things possible,” Scott said afterward. “Hopefully I can frame it in such way that it helps us grow the economy and have a smarter, easier-to-use tax code for folks to understand that America is great because people believe in hard work and are able to support their families and take care of themselves.”