Joined by dozens of residents and elected officials, the Jefferson County Republican Party opened new headquarters in west Louisville on Saturday in an effort to better reach black voters.
Located in the Chickasaw neighborhood’s Trinity Family Life Center, the new GOP office is part of a larger effort by recently elected GOP Chairman Nathan Haney to get the party outside its traditional areas of strength.
“We’re here because we want to learn and engage folks that we have not,” Haney told the audience. “We’ve turned our backs on them in the past. And so we want to be in this community. These are our neighbors and our friends, and this is our city.”
Among those who attended the event were Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, Congressman Andy Barr and Senator Rand Paul, who has made headlines for his national efforts to court minorities.
“If anybody accuses me of coming to the West End to look for votes, they’re right,” he said. “I’m here to ask you for your vote.”
The ideas Paul outlined to help improve west Louisville included his push for Economic Freedom Zones, school choice legislation, and reforms to the criminal justice system.
A 2016 presidential hopeful, Paul also slammed how U.S. drug laws are having a disproportionate impact on African-American communities.
“The war on drugs has three out of four people in prison who are black or brown,” he said. “But if you do a survey of who is using illegal drugs white kids are doing it too, they’re just not getting caught, or they got a better attorney or they live in the suburbs.”
Recent polling numbers show Paul’s effort to reach out to black voters is working, at least among Kentucky’s black population.
According to a Bluegrass Poll released in May, Paul pulls 29 percent of the African-American vote in a mock presidential contest against Hillary Clinton in the state. That’s a considerable jump for a GOP contender when considering Democrats receive upwards of 90 percent of that voting bloc.
Those sort of numbers are impressive to black voters such as Wayman Eddings, who grew up in west Louisville.
“Anybody who is active in west Louisville should take from this, you have new friends,” said Eddings, who was a lifelong Democrat until he changed party registration to Republican this year. “You have a new person that you can reach out to and talk to. That’s going to be the substantive meaning of today.”
Paul Skeptics Remain
Many at the event cited the Republican Party’s role in ending slavery and passing civil right legislation.
Talk radio host Rick Howland told WFPL the worst nightmare for Democrats is that African-Americans will remember which party opposed their historic strides.
“I remember who voted for the civil rights bills that passed in 1964 and 1965 that made sure I could vote,” said Howland, who spoke at the GOP event. “I remember my daddy didn’t have to go to the polling place with a gun in his pocket anymore. I remember the members of my family who used to argue about John Kennedy, saying he didn’t sponsor this legislation before he was elected president.”
How black voters today side on Paul and the local GOP depends largely on their view of the historic relationship between Republicans and African-Americans, and how disenchanted they are with Democrats.
A June 6 piece in the New York Times examined how prominent black Republicans such as Jackie Robinson, who once considered Richard Nixon a political ally, felt pushed out of the party in the 1960s. As the GOP embraced former segregationists such as Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as part of a national election strategy, Democrats began to take a stronghold of African-American support.
The repetitive mentioning of the GOP’s past performances before the 1960s and being the “party of Lincoln” wasn’t lost among onlookers.
“The fact you are referring to a person who lived almost 200 years ago as a shining beacon of your party is very troubling,” said Darryl Young, who attended the headquarters opening.
Paul’s reforms regarding felon voting rights and the war on drugs did strike a positive note with the audience Saturday. The crowd gave Paul a round of applause and boisterous “Amen” shouts when he mentioned the unfair “racial outcome” in the justice system, for instance.
But those positive marks are considered lip service by some who heard Paul’s speech when compared to a controversial record of verbal stumbles and questionable relationships that still make African-Americans cringe.
“Isn’t he the same man who had the Confederate warrior on his staff,” said Louisville resident Mikal Forbush, a community activist who also attend the event.
“Honestly, I think he is playing the political game. However, he’s not playing it well. He’s not thinking of who he’s associating himself with before he comes into the African-American community. He’s not thinking about what could happen when he opens his mouth and says certain things.”
Speaking with WFPL afterward, Paul said many African-Americans he’s met with have said Republicans never come to their community and haven’t shown they care about non-white voters.
“I’m showing up and I’m listening,” he said.
If Paul or any GOP candidate wants to do well in 2016 the party’s support in minority communities needs to change in order to remain competitive nationally, most observers agree. That includes improving their backing among women, Hispanics, and younger voters as well.
But asked if that outreach includes he and the GOP seeking forgiveness on certain issues—such as his past comments on the 1964 Civil Rights Act—Paul isn’t wavering much other than to say Republicans need to do better in 2014.
“When you look at our history all the way throughout, as Rick (Howland) said, Republicans have been part of the solution, part of civil rights in ’64,” he said. “We were for it in the ‘50s when the Democrats were voting no.
“The thirteenth, fourteenth amendment—no matter how far back you go, Republicans have been on the right side of voting rights. So no, I think Republicans really since the ‘60s haven’t tried hard enough. I don’t know if anybody needs to apologize, they just need to try harder, I think.”