Less than an hour before he was sworn in as only the seventh black U.S. senator in history, Tim Scott learned that students at his alma mater, Stall High School in North Charleston, would be watching live.
For the first time during his sudden and dramatic political ascent, Scott got tears in his eyes.
“I remember how far it seems that I’ve come with the help of so many people who cared,” he said later. “I thought specifically of Karen Cabe, who was my government teacher at Stall. She just loved me.”
Scott’s swearing in inside the U.S. Capitol was watched on TV by hundreds of Stall students, many of whom struggle with some of the same challenges that Scott faced, including a single-parent household and some failing grades.
“High school was tough at times for me, and Stall really encouraged and nurtured potential,” Scott said. “I hope the kids at Stall heard that today — or felt it.”
Cabe, now Karen Cabe Gibson, retired recently after 39 years but watched Scott’s swearing in from her James Island home. She said she “wasn’t surprised, just proud” of her former student.
“Whether you agree or disagree with his politics, he’s such an awesome person,” Gibson said. “Even when he was in school, he was always looking out for the kid who was having trouble or the students who needed help. He was a good leader.”
Stall Principal Kim Wilson said Scott’s story can inspire students at the school, where almost nine in 10 receive free or reduced lunch.
“It gives them a sense of hope that maybe one day they can be the next senator, the next congressman, the next president or whatever it is,” Wilson said. “If Senator Scott can do it, they can do it.”
Scott, a rare African-American in a Republican Party struggling to appeal to a diverse electorate, was appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the next two years of former Sen. Jim DeMint’s term. DeMint resigned to head the Heritage Foundation.
Scott is expected to run for the final two years of DeMint’s term in the 2014 general election, and Scott said his move to the higher chamber wouldn’t change his political approach.
“I think the average South Carolinian is very concerned about keeping the markets free in America, which means building and saving the economy as it is,” he said.
“They want a system of taxation that encourages entrepreneurship and stabilizes family businesses. ... It’s my goal to keep that opportunity conservatism, as Jim DeMint has labeled it, alive.”
Scott said he will focus on the same issues he did as a House member, such as improving the economy and encouraging entrepreneurship.
He said he has not talked much with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham about how they will work together. “What Senator Graham suggested was really good words of wisdom. He said, ‘Tim, be yourself. You know what you’ve been passionate about. You get more opportunities to do it in the Senate.’?”
Asked if the next Congress would differ from the past one, one that has been criticized as one of the biggest do-nothing sessions since the 1940s, Scott was unsure.
“If you define progress as the number of bills being passed, you might not see progress,” he said. “Some of us will define progress as the bills that don’t get passed. ... I won’t gauge how effective we are by the number of bills that we pass.”
Scott said he also didn’t know if the upcoming fiscal debates will involve less brinkmanship than the recently concluded fiscal-cliff debate.
“It’s as if people have an allergic reaction to a spending conversation,” Scott said. “If we’re going to have less brinkmanship, it’s going to be because we start having a serious dialogue on the spending epidemic.”
As he took the oath next to Vice President Joe Biden, Scott was joined in the Senate by those closest to him, including his mother, Frances Scott, his brother Ben, and family members of his mentor, the late John Moniz.
Scott said he hopes to return to North Charleston within the next month to visit with Stall students who looked on via television.
“I want to go and talk to those kids and let them know all things are possible,” he said. “Hard work is part of it. Optimism is a major part of it. We’ve got a great community.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.