United States Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) sat down with Dayna Cunningham, dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, for a wide-ranging conversation about criminal justice reform, education, internal and external threats to democracy and partisan divides in the latest installment of the Solomont Speaker Series on April 1. The event was co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science and the Tufts Republicans.
Scott began his political career in local and state government before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010. When he joined the U.S. Senate in 2013, he made history as the first Black person to serve in both chambers of Congress and the first Black senator from South Carolina. He sits on the Senate Finance Committee; the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; and the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, and he is the ranking member on the Special Committee on Aging.
Cunningham opened the conversation with a question about Scott’s Opportunity Agenda, a plan to create so-called “Opportunity Zones” across America by offering tax breaks to businesses that invest in rural communities with high poverty rates. Scott said the agenda was informed by his own upbringing in a poor, single-parent household in North Charleston, S.C.
“It seemed like for me to find opportunities, I had to leave my community,” Scott said. “And that was always frustrating because some of the most talented individuals I’ve ever met lived in my neighborhoods.”
Scott believes that private sector investment, not government spending, is key to creating jobs and increasing property values in impoverished communities without gentrifying them.
“Where I lived we had plenty of government money coming in trying to be helpful … truth is that it provided some assistance but not a lot,” Scott said.
Building on the idea of opportunity, Cunningham shifted the conversation to education access and affordability in Scott’s home state of South Carolina. According to Cunnignham, the annual income of a single parent earning minimum wage there, which is $7.25 per hour in 2022, is approximately $14,000, while the cost of one year’s in-state tuition at the University of South Carolina, the state’s largest public university, is about $13,000. Cunningham asked Scott to justify this barrier to education for working-class, single-parent families.
Scott argued that few single mothers in South Carolina make minimum wage and pointed to the state’s high rate of Pell Grant, merit- and need-based higher education scholarships.
“South Carolina, for the first time, will make your first two years of community college free and those credits transfer to a four-year college,” Scott said, referencing a program originated by South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster in 2021 using $17 million of federal coronavirus relief money.
The discussion then turned to criminal justice reform. Scott introduced the JUSTICE Act, a piece of police reform legislation co-sponsored exclusively by Republicans, in summer 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. Democratic lawmakers say the bill doesn’t do enough to counteract qualified immunity or ban forms of brutality, like the use of chokeholds. Cunningham asked Scott to respond to this criticism.
Scott maintained that his bill represents real movement on police reform and has the potential to gain bipartisan support — unlike the Democrats’ proposed legislation. Scott sees increased funding to state and local police forces for training and DEI initiatives as the path forward to reform.
“Officers today need more money for training,” Scott said. “We should be providing more money for de-escalation training, more money for the duty to intervene. We should have more money for providing for the police department to reflect the community from a diversity standpoint. All those things require more resources. … Our federal government gives about a billion dollars a year to local police to help these initiatives. I think it’d be 4 billion, 5 billion dollars. I mean, we’re talking about negligible amounts for something that I believe is the primary responsibility of government, which is security.”
Scott stipulated that “the federal government should not run local policing, period.”
Asked about the greatest threats to democracy today, Scott pointed to Russia’s war on Ukraine.
“Probably the biggest threat to democracy around the world is what we’ve seen happen with Putin’s genocide in Ukraine, which is also encouraging and emboldening … Iran, as well as China, North Korea is paying attention as well,” Scott said.
Scott described the present U.S. response to Putin’s war as “a very weak posture.”
“If I were in a position to encourage the president to do more, I would say sanction all the banks,” Scott said. “I would say, don’t just stop buying the Russian oil — sanction it. I would say real-time intelligence would be very helpful for the Ukrainians.”
Scott said that domestically, democracy is threatened by “a very uneven education system,” which he says constitutes a threat to national security. This is evidenced, he said, by low literacy rates among incarcerated populations.
Uneven education outcomes are a particularly salient issue in Scott’s home state of South Carolina, which is known to contain the “corridor of shame” a swath of impoverished, rural counties that share dismal public school conditions and severe disparities in educational outcomes between Black and white students. Probed during the audience Q&A on possible solutions to this problem, Scott said that federal funding for education is not the answer.
“You can’t think of money as simply the panacea to what ails us,” Scott said, before pointing to a philanthropically-supported New York City charter school in a majority-Black neighborhood as an example of how to improve equity in education.
Cunningham asked Scott to share his opinion of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden’s nominee to the Supreme Court. Jackson is expected to be confirmed by a slim margin — so far only one Republican Senator, Susan Collins of Maine, has committed to voting for her. Scott, a constitutional originalist, described Jackson as a “likable person” and “impressive candidate,” expressed concern over her “activist” judicial philosophy and ultimately declined to say whether he will vote to confirm her.
Cunningham’s final question for Scott was about how to bridge the hyper-partisan divides that cut across American society today.
“Have a cup of coffee with someone that you are diametrically opposed [to],” Scott said. “Literally sit down and say, ‘instead of telling you what I want you to know, I want to listen to you for a few minutes.’ … Work your way from a position of no rapport and no credibility to a position of rapport and credibility.”
Scott said he strives to have productive conversations with his counterparts across the aisle, naming Senator Cory Booker (D-NY) and Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) as colleagues with whom he has been able to find personal and professional common ground.“I think we all have a tendency to fall into groupthink,” Scott said. “The most powerful force on earth is a person with an open heart.”