Weeks after ducking criticism from his local NAACP leadership, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., joined Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and three of their predecessors Tuesday to celebrate Black History Month and speak openly about the role of race in their political career.
Scott, the sole Republican among 43 African-American members of Congress, used the event, which was at the Library of Congress, to stress the importance of bipartisanship. Excluding Scott, every senator present has joined the Congressional Black Caucus, a largely Democratic organization.
“My campaign was never about race,” Scott told ABC News in 2010 when he was first elected as a congressman. “The future is more important than the past.”
Though Scott’s event called “Honoring our Past and Celebrating our Future” suggested a slight rebranding, he repeated his focus on the future.
“The reason why I wanted to gather us here together is to look at the future and figure out how we can get there together,” Scott said.
The event, race-themed but not race-heavy, could be seen as advantageous for Scott, a Tea Party favorite who recently came under fire from African-American leaders who question his politics.
When North Carolina NAACP leader Rev. William Barber commented on Scott’s ties to the far right and likened him to a ventriloquist’s dummy, Scott brushed off the remarks on a January Meet The Press appearance.
“You just can’t really respond to someone who’s never taken the time to get to know you,” Scott said before launching into his anti-poverty initiatives.
The left-leaning blog Think Progress derided Scott for criticizing Obama’s actions during the 2011 debt ceiling debate and for proposing to limit food stamps. Though African-American leaders like Barber have suggested these policies are decidedly against their community, Scott remains focused on his twofold Opportunity Agenda, which focuses on financing education and providing skills training.
“The fact is, the opportunity agenda is not about whether you’re Black or White or Hispanic or Asian,” Scott said Tuesday. “It’s really about the fact that the opportunity to succeed in America starts with a good education.”
Politicians of color often face challenges in balancing the weight of race in the scheme of politics.
When asked Tuesday what was the biggest obstacle to their Senate career, former Senator Roland Burris, D-Ill., responded that it was his. But Scott and Booker passed on race and named themselves as the greatest obstacle to their own careers.
As current politicians who hope to remain in Washington, Scott and Booker toe a delicate line when talking about their race that leaves some supporters demanding they address it more and other wishing they’d ignore it.
The same criticism is often made of President Barack Obama, who represented Illinois in Congress for more than three years but did not attend the event.
While Scott’s politics were a light punchline throughout this event, the panel mostly focused on their shared history and looking ahead.
“We represent a range of political interests and viewpoints and I think that’s good for the African-American community,” said Sen. William Cowan, D-Mass. “I hope (Scott) is successful in his campaign because I love that the black experience is reflected on the other side of the aisle.”
Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill., summed it up this way: “Inclusion and civil rights issues are not a partisan issue.”