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updated: 12/18/2012 9:33 AM

Scott plays up modest background, downplays race

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  • U.S. Rep. Tim Scott smiles during a press conference announcing him as Jim DeMint's replacement in the U.S. Senate at the South Carolina Statehouse on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced Scott, as Sen. Jim DeMint's replacement, making him the only black Republican in Congress and the South's first black Republican senator since Reconstruction.

      U.S. Rep. Tim Scott smiles during a press conference announcing him as Jim DeMint's replacement in the U.S. Senate at the South Carolina Statehouse on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced Scott, as Sen. Jim DeMint's replacement, making him the only black Republican in Congress and the South's first black Republican senator since Reconstruction.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- To U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, keeping his modest upbringing in the front of his mind has helped guide his swift ascent in South Carolina's business and political circles and will continue to serve him in the U.S. Senate.

While race is certainly part of the man he has become, Scott hesitates to say it has anything to do with his status as a rising GOP star in a strongly conservative Southern state.

"What I've not ever really heard on the campaign trail was, besides the fact that you're black, or because you're black, here's what we want to do," Scott said Monday. "They've asked me questions about values and issues, and that's an amazing thing."

On Monday, Scott stood by as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced she had picked him to succeed Jim DeMint, who is departing the U.S. Senate in January to lead The Heritage Foundation. Scott will fill DeMint's seat for two years, then he could run in 2014 to finish out the remaining two.

Haley, the daughter of Indian-American immigrants and South Carolina's first female governor, said she chose Scott not to help diversify the GOP but because of his love for the state and ability to strongly advocate for it in Washington.

"I knew that he was the right person," Haley said. "It is very important to me, as a minority female, that Congressman Scott earned this seat."

Born in poverty in North Charleston, Scott grew up with a single mother who worked 16 hours a day to raise him and his brother. That mother stood to the side as Haley named her son as South Carolina's next U.S. senator. Scott described his mother as a loving but stern disciplinarian.

"I am very thankful to the good Lord, and to a strong mom who believed that sometimes love has to come at the end of a switch. And she loved me a lot," Scott said. "My mother did not quit on me."

As his mother struggled to sustain their family, Scott struggled in high school, flunking a handful of classes and working a movie theater job to help make ends meet.

Along the way, he was befriended by the late John Moniz, a conservative entrepreneur who ran a nearby Chick-fil-A restaurant. Scott often credits Moniz with being a mentor who taught him important values, such as how enlightened self-interest requires giving first before reaping a reward.

Scott earned a degree in political science from Charleston Southern University, which is affiliated with the South Carolina Baptist Convention and touts how it integrates faith into learning and serving. He ran a successful insurance business and for 13 years served on the Charleston County Council. He was also an honorary chairman for one of the re-election bids by the late political icon Sen. Strom Thurmond.

Scott became the only black Republican in South Carolina's Statehouse when he was elected in 2008. A year later, Scott announced he would run for lieutenant governor but quickly abandoned that bid when U.S. Rep. Henry Brown said he was retiring from Congress.

Scott was the contest's favorite after winning a nine-way Republican primary for the seat that had not elected a Democrat in 30 years, defeating Carroll Campbell III, the son of the late popular South Carolina governor. In a runoff, he also defeated Thurmond's son, Paul, with whom he'd served in county council. He won endorsements from Tea Party groups, including former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and The Club for Growth, which promotes budget reform, free trade and reducing taxes.

After his election to Congress, Scott said his impoverished roots would play a role in his Capitol Hill career. During an interview with The Associated Press, Scott said conservatives needed to sell capitalism as a path from poverty and said he wanted to develop a plan for "people who come from neighborhoods like I came from and simply sell them on the fact that this country is a place where you can rise to any level."

On Monday, Charleston County Republican Party Chairwoman Lin Bennett said Scott was a strong, pro-business advocate who believes in a smaller government that leaves more decisions up to individuals. Bennett also downplayed any connection between Scott's race and his political successes.

"Obviously he's black, but I don't think that discussion has ever come up in selecting Tim to represent us at any level," Bennett said. "He knows what he believes in. People vote for him based on where he stands on the issues."

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