For more than a year, GOP Sen. Rand Paul has been staking out positions on issues that resonate in the black community, including school choice and prison sentencing reform. And he’s been showing up in some unexpected — for a Republican — venues, including historically black colleges.
It’s stirred an unusual degree of curiosity about the freshman Kentucky senator — and 2016 GOP presidential prospect — among the Democratic Party’s most reliable voting bloc.
“He’s a different voice in the arena that we don’t traditionally hear,” says Lorraine Miller, acting head of the NAACP, who expects to invite Paul to speak at the organization’s July national conference in Las Vegas.
“He’s an engaging guy — that’s why we want to talk to him,” Miller says. Miller is not the only black leader who has been intrigued by Paul, whose father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, had three unsuccessful presidential runs and amassed a fervent Libertarian following.
Miller’s predecessor, Benjamin Jealous, has previously hailed Paul’s position on reforming drug and sentencing laws, which disproportionately affect African-American individuals and families. And Jealous has pointedly noted that while an NAACP poll last year showed that a majority of African-Americans believe that Republicans “don’t care at all about civil rights,” about 14 percent indicated they would vote for a GOP candidate if he or she were committed to civil rights.
Democrats have little worry about maintaining their vise-like grip on the African-American vote come 2016 — since 1964, no Democratic presidential candidate has gotten less than 82 percent of the black vote. But Paul is speaking both directly and indirectly to black voters in a way the community hasn’t seen in decades from a prospective GOP presidential candidate.
“He’s done what most conventional Republicans would be too fearful to do — dive into situations that would make them uncomfortable,” says Ron Christie, an African-American lawyer and GOP commentator who worked in the George W. Bush administration.
“I find it fascinating that he has gone into communities where Republicans typically don’t connect, and don’t listen,” Christie says.
Paul went into those communities with some baggage. After winning Kentucky’s GOP Senate primary in 2010, he said in an interview on MSNBC that he believed, as a proponent of limited government, that private businesses should not be forced to adhere to the nation’s civil rights law.
As criticism rained down, Paul quickly shifted gears, issuing a statement that said he supports the Civil Rights Act because, “I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws.”
It was just over a year ago that Paul made a much-ballyhooed appearance at Howard University, one of the nation’s top historically black colleges. His speech included a few stumbles — he drew groans when he asked those in the packed auditorium if they knew that black Republicans founded the NAACP. But Paul also elicited applause when he said that the nation has drug laws and court systems that “disproportionately [punish] the black community.”
Miller, the NAACP chief, and other African-American leaders refer to the issue as “mass incarceration,” and its prominence as an issue in the black community can’t be understated.
Source: NPR | LIZ HALLORAN