When the 112th Congress is seated in January, two newcomers, Allen West of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina, will make history as they become one of the rarest of political species. They are black and Republican, a combination that rarely finds success at the ballot box—or elsewhere in contemporary U.S. politics. Now, the question is how will the GOP receive them?
Defying the odds, West and Scott were the only two winners of the 32 black Republican candidates seeking seats in the U.S. House this year. By surviving, they are poised to command the spotlight as soon as they arrive in Washington. No doubt they will be in great demand by conservative television and talk radio, offering up living proof that the GOP has a drop of melanin in its lily-white portrait. Scott, in particular, landed a plumb assignment within the first week of his victory. He’s one of three incoming freshmen legislators appointed to the 22-member transition team that will craft House rules under the Republican leadership.
West and Scott are far-right conservatives who owe their seats to the Tea Party and its princess, Sarah Palin, who endorsed both of them. This will complicate their mission. They must embrace the Tea Party and the far-right wing of the GOP as it pushes traditionalists within the House leadership to the extremist margins of politics. All of this drama promises to make West and Scott must-see political theater.
Indeed, for the next two years, the House leadership faces an internal struggle to decide how it wants to lead. Will it be the traditional big-business, status-quo Republicans who run things? Or will the energy and excitement of anti-establishment Tea Party Republicans demand to be heard? As go West and Scott, so goes the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Even the Democrat-led Congressional Black Caucus is open to embracing them as members, though it raises the question of how the liberal-leaning group would conduct its business with two very conservative Republicans sitting in on their strategy sessions. Still, CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-TX) extended an open-hand welcome. “Should either of the two African-American Republicans recently elected to the House of Representatives request membership in the Congressional Black Caucus, they will be welcomed,” she said through a spokesman in an email.
West, 49, is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army who made news for being relieved of his battalion command in Iraq for firing his gun at the head of an Iraqi police officer during a rough interrogation. He retired from the military in 2004, settled in Florida, and set sights on a second career in politics.
West plans to sit with the all-Democrat Congressional Black Caucus. “I plan on joining,” he said during a radio interview. “I’m not gonna ask for permission or whatever, I’m gonna find out when they meet and I will be a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and I think I meet all of the criteria and it’s so important that we break down this ‘monolithic voice’ that continues to talk about victimization and dependency in the black community.”
By comparison, Scott, 45, is a seasoned politician. He’s served on the Charleston County Council and in the South Carolina House. To win his spot in Congress, Scott notched an impressive primary victory in the largely white district over Carroll Campbell III, the son of a former South Carolina governor, and in a runoff over Paul Thurmond, the son of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Scott is reluctant to become a member of the CBC. “I haven’t really decided,” he said. “I’m probably leaning against it at this point. My experience has been the whole notion of one nation so I really shy away things that create some kind of boundaries. … it highlights the divisions I’ve been pushing forward to erase.”
Not since Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma retired in 2003 has there been a black Republican in Congress. Before him, Rep. Gary A. Franks of Connecticut was the lone black Republican in Congress and the first in nearly 60 years. If Watts’s and Franks’s experiences offer any clues, it’s unlikely that West and Scott are going to find a gilded path to political success in Washington.
Watts declined to join the CBC, saying he had no place in an organization that struck him as an auxiliary of the Democratic Party. By cutting himself off from other blacks in Congress, Watts effectively became an island unto himself from his election in 1994 on the coattails of soon-to-be Speaker Newt Gingrich.
For a brief spell, Watts was the go-to black face of the GOP, appearing on television to prop up policies that most black voters eschewed. After serving five terms, the lights came on for Watts—he announced his retirement in frustration after realizing the GOP wasn’t listening to anything he had to say about making the party more hospitable to blacks, even conservative ones like him.
Franks had a more contentious tenure. From his arrival in early 1991, Franks stood alone in Washington. Largely overlooked by his GOP colleagues and ostracized by members of the black caucus, Franks had no place to call home in Congress.
He attended the CBC’s weekly meetings, where he lambasted the group for its progressive policies. He voted against a civil rights bill that the CBC universally endorsed as it passed Congress but was eventually vetoed by President George H.W. Bush. Franks made even more enemies among the black caucus with his October 1991 vote—over the official objections of the CBC—to support the nomination of federal judge Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Eventually, tensions escalated to the point that Franks quit the group in 1993, only to rejoin a few days later. By then the damage was done. The CBC found ways to conduct its business without Franks, who was viewed by many of the black legislators as a spy for the GOP. Franks lost his seat in 1996 to Democrat James Mahoney.
No matter what West and Scott say now, in the euphoric days following their political victories, this Republican Congress will be forced to show that it can be welcoming to its two newest black members. Republicans have the opportunity to prove doubters, like social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrong. Coates observes that being a black conservative and Republican requires an intellectual bifurcation that demands the suspension of racism in the party’s history, politics, and leadership after the Civil Rights era. “African Americans are acutely aware of this, and thus are acutely aware of the difference between being conservative and being a Republican,” Coates wrote in a December 2002 Washington Monthly review of Watts’ autobiography, “What Color is a Conservative?” Said Coates: “While they don’t advertise it, many blacks fall into the former category, but as things are, very few will ever fall into the latter.”
That was true until last week’s midterm. West and Scott are coming to Washington, bright-eyed and believing that they can buck—nay, shape—the history of the GOP. In turn, the GOP’s treatment of West and Scott will test a deeply embedded narrative within the black community.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.