Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) outlined a series of reforms geared toward improving conditions for minorities during a sparsely attended Friday address to the National Urban League.
As he contemplates a 2016 presidential run, Paul has made expanding the appeal of the GOP a major focus, and his Friday address was one of many he’s given over the past six months to audiences typically hostile to the GOP.
He declared that “race still plays a role in the enforcement of the law,” and announced new legislation to eliminate the disparity in sentencing between crack and powdered cocaine, which is seen to disproportionately affect African-Americans.
"I won't sit idly by and watch our criminal justice system continue to consume, confine and define our young men," Paul said. "I say we take a stand and fight for justice now.”
Though he’s known for his libertarian views, Paul said Friday he believes there’s a place for government to combat discrimination and hinted he could support Democratic efforts to restore a portion of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court last year.
“Not only do I support the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, I’m a Republican who wants to restore a federal role for the government in the Voting Rights Act,” he said.
That comment drew the ire of Democrats, who highlighted his criticism of the Civil Rights Act as an example of federal overreach during his 2010 run for Senate as evidence his declared support for the law was disingenuous.
Democrats have pushed back hard on Paul’s outreach to minority voters, arguing his record, and that of the Republican Party as a whole, doesn’t match his rhetoric. They’ve pointed to voter ID laws pushed by GOP state legislatures across the nation as a case where Paul’s rhetoric is at odds with the GOP’s actions.
On Friday, Paul didn’t comment on those laws specifically, instead choosing to focus on restoring voting access for felons, a cause that he’s aggressively pursued in the Senate.
"Nationwide, 5 million people are prevented from voting because of their criminal record. It's the biggest impediment to voting in our country. I want more people to vote, not less," Paul said.
Though Paul received a lukewarm reception at the conference, reportedly speaking to a half-full ballroom, his outreach efforts to minorities and young voters have caused Democrats to take notice. On Friday, at a breakfast briefing for reporters in Washington, Dan Pfeiffer, a senior White House aide, said he found Paul to be "one of the most intriguing" candidates in the potential 2016 field.
“He’s the only Republican, I think, who has articulated a message that is potentially appealing to younger Americans,” Pfeiffer said, at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.