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South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott Reflects On A Tumultuous Year

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: It's New Year's Eve, the last day of the year, so we thought we'd spend this hour reflecting on the year that was by checking back in with some of the people we spoke with throughout the year to hear their reflections and their hopes for the coming year.

And we're going to start by talking with U.S. Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina. We spoke with him a number of times over the course of the past year about policies and other matters. Senator Scott was just elected to his first full term. He also won a 2014 special election for a partial term.

And Senator Tim Scott joins us now from Charleston, S.C. Senator Scott, thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations on your re-election.

TIM SCOTT: Thank you. Thank you. Happy New Year's Eve, and I hope you guys have a blessed 2017.

MARTIN: And we do, too. Senator, it's been quite a year. You enjoyed the honor of re-election. You've given some memorable speeches that have gotten a lot of attention. You also endured the tragedy of losing your friend, State Senator Clementa Pinckney, who was killed along with eight others at Emanuel Church in 2015? And the trial of the killer, Dylann Roof, just concluded. So I wanted to start by asking you, what was the most consequential event of the past year for you?

SCOTT: You know, it's hard to overlook the conviction of Dylann Roof as it relates to 33 counts. It's hard to not see that as a powerful statement against a person who wanted to start a race war by coming to Charleston and snuffing out the futures of nine amazing people, one of whom of course was Clementa Pinckney. He was a friend, an amazing pastor, a state senator who was a Democrat who did not operate from a partisan perspective but allowed the love of the Lord to fill his heart and shared it with everyone. And that's a real loss.

But what a victory. For those of us - I'm sorry - those of us who were watching and paying attention and - on pins and needles, frankly, seeing the outcome of that was powerful. It doesn't make up for the loss of lives, but it certainly reinforces why in the epicenter of tragedy Charleston rose again to a height that was unfamiliar around the country frankly and one that we celebrate.

MARTIN: Now, it's been, as we said, a year in which there have just been so many things. I mean we've been scouring the lists of a number of news organizations for their ideas about what were the most important sort of stories of the year, and two things seemed to leap out.

One is the number of killings of black men by police, and the other is the killings of police officers. And in July, following a week of deadly shooting, you gave a deeply personal speech on the floor of the Senate. You described how you'd been pulled over by law enforcement as many as seven times in one year while serving in public office. I just want to play a short clip.


SCOTT: So while I thank God I have not endured bodily harm, I have, however, felt the pressure applied by the scales of justice when they are slanted. I have felt the anger, the frustration, the sadness and the humiliation that comes with feeling like you're being targeted for nothing more than being just yourself.

MARTIN: Do you think you made a difference with that speech?

SCOTT: You know, it's hard. It's hard to know. I hope that I have. Certainly in South Carolina, I think we have moved towards one another in many ways. I hope that this speech was a part of the spark. I hope it validated the experiences of so many men of color, and at the same time, I think it brought more attention to the issue.

And frankly the response from many conservatives was a, oh, wow - almost seeing this with new eyes for the first time. So my hope is that we have that family conversation in a way that brings our country closer together and builds a bridge to the future.

MARTIN: Well, it seems clear that you hope to be a bridge builder. And just even in the conversation we're having now, you've talked about the hope of and the desire for people to be able to have conversations and not be so caught up in division.

But now we're coming out of an election that was extremely polarizing. I just have to ask. You know, how can I put this? There doesn't seem to be much of an appetite for the kind of dialogue that you have been espousing and also trying to model at least right now.

SCOTT: Certainly. But you know, I think folks who saw this election as just a tragic outcome will be surprised, and hopefully their hearts will be uplifted as president-elect becomes president of the United States.

I do, however, believe that with this new administration, we have an opportunity as a party to put up or shut up. Donald Trump said on the campaign trail, what do African-Americans have to lose? I think a better question is, what do we have to gain? And the answer will be crystal clear after four years or perhaps after just a couple of years. I'm optimistic, and I would ask those who believe in the power of reconciliation to be optimistic.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, there's been a lot of talk about how Democrats should conduct themselves going forward in the Congress as the minority in both houses. Some are saying they should sign on to common sense policies that make sense for their constituents.

But others are saying that they should follow the example of Senator Mitch McConnell when he was - as Republican leader who said famously that the goal of a caucus - the most important task was to defeat President Obama's efforts at re-election. And so the question would be, if the Democrats conduct themselves toward President Trump the way Republicans did toward President Obama, would that be fair?

SCOTT: Well, certainly. As President Obama said, elections have consequences. And what he meant was very clear in his policies. And his policies led to frankly a Trump victory from my perspective. The answer to your question, however - should Democrats treat Republicans in the same fashion that Republicans treated Democrats? - I will tell you. In the Senate, the answer should be yes because when Mitch McConnell became the leader of the Senate, Democrats had more votes on their amendments in the first hundred days of Mitch McConnell's leadership than they had under two years of Harry Reid's leadership.

So the question about how to treat the other side - if we're going to use the Republican Senate as a way of deciding yes or no, I say treat us as we treated you because when we came into power, we gave Democrats more opportunities, more input in the legislative process than I had in my first two years. We did that in the first hundred days.

So there's many ways to spin that question. The goal, however, should be not Republicans versus Democrats, not Democrats versus Republicans, but what do we do on behalf of the American people?

MARTIN: That's United States Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina. He was kind enough to speak to us from Charleston. Senator Scott, thank you so much for speaking with us once again. We've enjoyed our many conversations with you over the course of the year, and we hope they'll continue. Happy New Year to you.

SCOTT: Yes, Ma'am. Happy New Year to you and your family. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.