Opinion: For Sens. Scott, Cowan, same race doesn’t mean similar views

Republican Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) turned to Democrat Sen. William “Mo” Cowan (Mass.) and said: “People are always asking me about him. They want to know if we get along.”

That is not a casual question. Scott and Cowan are the first two black Americans ever to serve in the Senate at the same time. This unique moment will end Tuesday with Massachusetts’ special Senate election, a race Cowan chose not to enter.

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Only eight black people have held a Senate seat in history. Three of them, Scott, Cowan and former Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), did not win the seat in an election but held it as appointees. In a political age of rising racial diversity, Cowan got his appointment from a black man (Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat) and Scott’s appointment came from the daughter of Indian immigrants (South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican).

“They want to know what he’s like — a black Republican,” Sen. Cowan said, explaining that he too is constantly asked about the other black man in the Senate. “I tell them, honestly, 95 percent of the time, 90 percent of the time, we agree on where we need to go, but where we differ is how we get there.”

Scott added: “A lot of the black church people want to know that as a black Republican I reach out to him as another black man.”

Both men are children of the south. Scott, 47, is from South Carolina and Cowan, 44, grew up in North Carolina. Both grew up in families that were far from affluent. Scott’s parents divorced when he was 7. Cowan’s father died when he was 16.

Both attended college in the South. Cowan graduated from Duke with a sociology degree and Scott from Charleston Southern University with a degree in political science. Cowan went north to Massachusetts to earn a law degree at Northeastern.

“He understands the underpinnings of success,” Scott said, reaching over to grab Cowan’s shoulder, as we had breakfast recently near Capitol Hill. “It is important for kids to see successful men, role models whose behavior and lifestyle is not those followed by black people in entertainment and sports.”

The Republican and the Democrat do have policy differences.

In two upcoming Supreme Court cases dealing with race, for example, they are on opposing sides. Scott favors an end to the Section 5 pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. It currently requires Justice Department approval for any changes to voting procedures in South Carolina and throughout the south. The extra scrutiny aims to protect minorities’ voting rights.

“South Carolina has come a long way,” said Scott, pointing out that he won election to the House in a white majority district against the sons of former segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) and former South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell (R). “Each state needs the opportunity to heal and rest.”

Cowan takes the other side: “Voting rights violations are an unfortunate part of American history. We have not always been on our best behavior. This last election was ridiculous. You had efforts to limit when and where people could vote. If that law is struck down, all Congress needs to take a look at making sure voting is not changed to have a disparate impact on minorities.”

They also disagree on the Supreme Court’s pending ruling on affirmative action in higher education. Scott is opposed to numerical measures on admitting minority students to public universities. “If it is a goal … that is a different conversation,” he said. Cowan sees a need for public universities to pay attention to the reality of race as an ongoing factor in American life.

The need for reform of public education is where they find agreement.

Both are supporters of charter schools. Both are looking at innovations to improve education for black children, especially black boys. Scott grew up in poverty, frequently moving from school to school and dropping out as he tried to find the right school. Cowan, who came from a troubled family background even before his father died, was the first student from his high school to get in to Duke.

“We have to dig deep on education and see the roots of the problems with educating black children,” Cowan said. “We have to meet kids where they are and not force the idea that one size fits all … too many of our kids are dealing with challenges before the school day starts.”

Scott points to the nub of their agreement about schools as “the fundamental premise that education is for kids — not politicians, not teachers, not policy people in Washington — but for kids.” Cowan: “We are both testament to the truth that education transforms lives, individual lives as well as families and generations.”

Scott wants public schools to be open to vouchers and tax credits as opening more educational options for poor children. He opposes common core standards as too inflexible. Cowan favors national standards as a bottom line for student achievement. He does not support vouchers because, he argues, they help few students and leave everyone else behind.

“We need a rising tide to lift all boats,” Cowan said.

“You sound like Ronald Reagan,” replied Scott with a brotherly laugh.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.