He was the second of four kids. His parents divorced when he was young. But he talks with fondness about the work ethic of his childhood, which seems to have informed the basic conservatism that blossomed later.
DeMint’s mother supported the family by starting the DeMint Academy of Dance and Decorum in their house. “No one owes you anything,” she would tell her kids. She installed a bell with a rope on a telephone pole and would ring it when she needed help at home. If there weren’t enough dance partners in his mom’s class, Jim, in his awkward preadolescence, would be summoned to dance with a high-school girl.
Later, his mother remarried and had two more children. DeMint had a paper route, bagged groceries, and played drums in a cover band, Salt & Pepper, which had black and white members. He went to college at the University of Tennessee, got an MBA at Clemson, and worked for his father-in-law’s advertising firm before starting his own marketing business. He and Debbie had four kids. A Presbyterian, DeMint has written that he had an awakening in his twenties after discovering a group of Christian businessmen who met weekly to discuss the Bible. In time, his understanding of Christianity formed the basis for his political philosophy: God gives freedom; the government takes it away.
He has lived for years with fellow lawmakers in the so-called C Street House on Capitol Hill, which is affiliated with a Christian organization called the Fellowship. “Politics only works when we’re realigned with our savior,” DeMint has said.
DeMint got involved with politics in the early ’90s when he advised another political newbie, Bob Inglis, on Inglis’s first run for Congress. Dave Woodard, a political-science professor at Clemson who was also advising Inglis, says the marketing man seemed to have a knack for assessing the political landscape. He recalls a small gathering in which DeMint “was the last person in the room to speak. And when he spoke, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I should’ve shut up and listened.’ ”
Inglis won the race and term-limited himself. In 1998, he helped DeMint take over his seat, representing the fourth district of South Carolina.
During DeMint’s three terms in Congress and his first two years in the Senate, he was for the most part an uncontroversial team player. He was elected freshman-class president in 1998 and joined a team of lawmakers working to market the party better. He embraced the earmarks he would later spurn, albeit with some qualms. (“South Carolina is one of the poorest states, and I can’t sit on the sidelines and say, ‘You can give it out, but we’re not going to take it,’ ” he told the Greenville News in 2000.) Years before he would oppose President Bush’s immigration-reform efforts and declare that Americans could no longer trust the Bush administration on the economy, DeMint filled out a 2002 newspaper questionnaire thus: “Most admired person: President George W. Bush. . . . Most unforgettable person: Jesus.”
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DeMint did, however, show signs of the stubbornness that sometimes gets him in trouble with party leaders, even as it speaks to his voters. Running for the Senate in 2004, he said during a debate that he believed gay people shouldn’t be permitted to teach in public schools. At first, the negative headlines seemed to catch the candidate off guard. But DeMint refused to back down, adding days later that this was nothing personal against gays, that he’d have said the same thing about an unwed pregnant woman.
In time, DeMint apologized, sort of, without backing away from the original sentiment: He said the issue wasn’t his to decide. But during his 2010 Senate race, he repeated his stance on gay and unwed pregnant teachers, apparently convinced that time would vindicate him, if it hadn’t already.
Still, the pre-2006 DeMint mostly toed the party line. In 1999, a local paper reported, even as then–South Carolina Republican congressman Mark Sanford was warning that Republicans weren’t doing enough to rein in spending, DeMint, as “cochairman of message development” was touting the accomplishments of the GOP-led House. The same year, another paper recounted his efforts to stop his party from “feuding,” saying Republicans needed to be united to elect a Republican President. Said DeMint: “It makes me a little angry when Republicans stand on the sideline and talk about the failures of the Republican Party.”
Next: DeMint starts to make trouble in the Senate