Republican Senator Rand Paul will speak at one of the country’s oldest historically black colleges as he seeks to reach out to African-American voters, and some Louisville leaders say that’s a good sign.
Paul is scheduled to address students at Howard University in Washington, D.C. next Wednesday where Kentucky’s junior senator is expected to talk about school choice and changing federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
The senator’s remarks will also focus on how the GOP and black history intertwine, and marks another sign Paul is earnest in his attempts to seek out minorities ahead of his potential presidential bid.
“It’s important that the Republican Party to talk to everybody,” says Paul spokesman Dan Bayens. “And I’m not sure that we’ve been doing that, especially recently. No matter who the group is let’s go and have a conversation with them.”
Paul is becoming a force in the GOP that has rocked the establishment of both parties in an unexpected way. National polls show Paul is at the top rumored 2016 Republican presidential candidates, coming in at either second in the still too early to predict GOP primary field.
If Paul hopes to beat out Republican rival and fellow Senator Marco Rubio, he will have to expand the GOP’s base, which was unable to win the 2012 election. That means going into demographics generally written off by the party in year’s past.
“That’s what the Republican Party is going to have to do, and I think they’ve done some soul-searching now and realized they’re on the wrong course,” University of Louisville political science Professor Dewey Clayton. “It’s not just about talking, but it’s about coming up with policies and programs and solutions that African-Americans feels are in their best interest. Now I don’t know how successful Paul will be but someone’s got to start somewhere.”
Local black leaders appear to agree and are praising Paul’s outreach while pointing out they’re not always in agreement with the Tea Party favorite politically.
The Rev. Kevin Cosby is senior pastor at St. Stephen Baptist Church, and has hosted Paul at his congregation.
He tells WFPL Paul’s overture at Howard is a great sign and black voters should be willing to hear the freshman lawmaker out.
“I don’t agree with everything that Senator Paul represents, but there is a lot of common ground that I have with Senator Paul. In fact, I would venture to say on this the 45th anniversary of the martyrdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I could see Dr. King and Sen. Paul collaborating on a lot of issues,” he says.
Asked what collaboration he could envision between the civil rights icon and Tea Party senator, Cosby says King and Paul would both be against the U.S. government’s use of unmanned drones and the expanding military industrial complex.
Several civil rights leaders disagree and take umbrage with Paul, however.
After winning the 2010 GOP primary, Paul famously appeared on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and said he would’ve opposed the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 based on his libertarian beliefs.
Even while praising Paul’s nearly 13-hour filibuster on the use of drones, CNN contributor and liberal activisgt Van Jones said he still believes the senator is a “villain on civil rights.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s successful strategy was to force the federal government to intercede not just with states, but also private businesses that denied equal treatment. Paul would have robbed King’s strategy of its teeth, because he does not believe the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution grants the federal government the right to protect individuals from racial discrimination in the marketplace. In fact, he once said businesses should be able to turn people away based on the color of their skin.
Cosby says those controversial statements aren’t unimportant and he disagrees with Paul, but those remarks are a diversion to larger problems facing black America today.
“I don’t think Senator Paul has any affinities with the Bull Connors or George Wallaces. I don’ think that’s what he was saying. But I think that is why we have to move beyond sound bites and engage people on the substance of what they’re saying,” he says. “The thing about Senator Paul I agree with is he is willing to engage African-Americans on issues important to us. I’m like Malcolm X, I’m willing to talk to anyone who is serious about results.”
Like Cosby, black Democratic lawmakers in Kentucky note Paul’s presidential ambitions are clear. There are already reports of visits to New Hampshire being planned, and meeting with Paul in any context makes political sense for some.
“He is a potential presidential nominee. I think that we need to understand what he’s thinking on these issues,” says Democratic state Representative Reginald Meeks, adding he’d prefer Paul try to reach black voters in Kentucky first. “They’re important issues that effected our community, and I would encourage him to speak to a broader base of black voters other than just the colleges and universities, and I would home he would come home particularly here to Louisville.”
A Paul aide confirmed he is set to meet with a group of black pastors in Louisville next month to discuss charter schools and other education reforms.