Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul speaks before the National Urban League this Friday to outline an agenda relevant to minorities.
In a one-on-one interview with WFPL Thursday morning, Paul previewed a speech that will focus on criminal justice reform, school choice, and economic freedom zones.
“I think all of these have relevance to really the agenda of the Urban League and the things the Urban League would like to pass,” said Paul. “The things we’re doing to try to restore voting rights to make the war on drugs less of a burden on one community are all things people in the Urban League both support politically and hopefully the audience will as well.”
Over 8,000 participants are convening at the conference in Cincinnati to discuss jobs and economic opportunities for the black community.
Paul will deliver his message a day after Vice President Joe Biden addresses the civil rights group, providing the GOP lawmaker with a national audience in his continued effort to build the case for black voters to give Republicans a chance.
Those efforts to forge a relationship with minorities and broaden GOP appeal hasn’t been an easy political lift. For the most part Paul’s been ridiculed by national Democrats and received little praise from fellow Republicans.
Still, Paul, a 2016 presidential prospect, continues to build a legislative portfolio that diverges with traditional GOP consultants. It’s a legislative package dealing with voting rights, U.S. drug sentencing laws, and criminal justice reforms across the aisle.
Just this week Paul joined Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland for a panel discussion supporting voting rights for felons.
The reaction to this courtship in his home state’s largest city, Louisville, has been praised by some and criticized by others.
Over the past year, he has made regular stops in the city’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, visiting local businesses, community centers, and churches.
Those visits have some leaders with hope that Paul, despite past controversial statements and associations, is willing to be begin embracing parts of the African-American economic agenda as well.
“You know I’ve got nothing but positive feedback,” said Paul. “Even when I go into an area and people say, ‘I’m a Democrat, always been a Democrat and will continue.’ Some will look at me and say, ‘You know what, the Democrats have taken us for granted and I’m willing to put myself out there and say Democrats have to compete for my vote.’”
Black Voters Must ‘Seek to Educate’ Paul
Louisville Urban League President and CEO Ben Richmond is also attending the national conference in Cincinnati.
He hasn’t met with Paul personally, but said black voters should be willing to hear what the libertarian-leaning senator has to offer.
“We should listen and hear his ideas and try to seek to educate him on what we are doing and why we need certain legislation to lift all boats, not just some boats,” said Richmond.
“I hope Senator Paul will become more enlightened on the issues that are very important to us and help us turn the tide toward legislation that is going have a much deeper trickle down to our community.”
The most recent federal data shows the unemployment rate among African-Americans dipped to 10.7 percent in June, which is the lowest in almost six years.
That is still twice the national average, and the National Urban League’s 2014 report One Nation Underemployed: Jobs Rebuild America notes the underemployment rate for black workers hovers just over 20 percent.
In terms of income inequality, little has changed since the Civil Rights Movement along racial lines.
A U.S. Census report last year, for instance, found household income levels between blacks and whites hasn’t narrowed since 1965. Another study showed America’s wealth gap in the context of race has not improved over the past three decades either, and was made worse by the so-called Great Recession.
From The Urban Institute:
From 1983 to 2010, average family wealth for whites has been about six times that of blacks and Hispanics—the gap in actual dollars growing as average wealth increased for both groups. The Great Recession exacerbated this disparity: from 2004 to 2010, whites lost 1 percent of their wealth, while blacks lost 23 percent and Hispanics lost 25 percent.
Richmond said he wants to see if Paul’s vision overlaps with any of the Urban League’s jobs and economic platform, particularly measures to make it easier to do business for minority entrepreneurs.
That agenda includes supporting a raise in the minimum wage for U.S. workers, something Richmond said is needed in the black community.
In past meetings with west Louisville leaders, Paul argued a $10.10 hourly pay hike would hurt minorities.
It’s a plan Paul claims could inject $650 million into local neighborhoods over the next decade. Some west Louisville leaders have praised the idea as breaking with the status quo, but it’s math has been scrutinized in other reports.
Courting black voters is also made difficult by Paul’s own earlier comments in which he disagreed with a key provision of the Civil Rights Act in 2010.
Many critics remain hostile to the idea of a Tea Party darling being heralded as the lawmaker who is best equipped to craft a 21st Century civil rights agenda.
It’s an issue Paul still bristles at when confronted four years later, repeating no lawmaker on Capitol Hill is trying push minority rights than he is currently.
“Very few people are running around saying, oh something about the Civil Rights Act,” Paul told WFPL. “I’m a proud supporter of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. I’m actually working with Democrats on trying to restore aspects of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down. So people who want to say that are simply partisans and they don’t care about the truth too much.”
For Paul, skeptics showing broader interest in engaging and persuading his worldview is a positive step.
Civil rights leaders like Richmond appear less interested in past controversies and want to know if Paul can be an ally to move this from outreach to a solid agenda.
“I’m not in the position to say how much Senator Paul has progressed,” said Richmond “I know he’s putting forth an effort.”
“We need economic development and housing development tools, so I hope he can become educated and enlightened on how the federal government, the U.S. Senate, and senators can help develop those tools and leverage them. Like I said, I’m hoping that he can be so educated.”