Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told a mostly African-American audience Wednesday that he had “never wavered in my support for civil rights,” hoping to insulate himself from future attacks on an issue that could haunt him if he runs for president in 2016.
Paul, speaking at Howard University in Washington, D.C., said there isn’t a Republican today who does not support civil rights.
“The dispute, if there is one, has always been about how much of the remedy should come under federal or state or private purview. What gets lost is the Republican Party has always been the party of civil rights and voting rights.”
Paul came under fire during his 2010 Senate campaign after raising questions about the “public accommodations” aspects of the Civil Rights Act that prevent private businesses that serve the public from discriminating based on race.
“I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners — I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant — but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership,” he said in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal at the time.
“But I absolutely think there should be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that’s most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about in my mind.”
A business professor who attended the speech asked Paul, “Aside from the moral reasons not to discriminate, of which there are many, when is it OK legally to discriminate?”
“I think it’s a mischaracterization of my position. I’ve never been against the Civil Rights Act, ever,” Paul replied.
“There was a long, one interview that had a long, extended conversation about the ramifications beyond race, and I have been concerned about the ramifications of certain portions of the Civil Rights Act beyond race, as they are now being applied to smoking; menus — listing calories and things on menus; and guns,” he added. “And so I do question some of the ramifications and the extensions.”
Paul’s appearance at the historically black university marked an attempt to broaden his support among young and minority voters in preparation for a potential presidential bid.
Speaking to a full auditorium, Paul acknowledged that he faced what many considered to be a crowd hostile to the Republican Party.
To those who have asked if he was “nervous” about the speech, Paul said, “my response is that my trip will be a success if The Hilltop [the Howard University paper] will simply print a headline that reads ‘A Republican came to Howard, but he came in peace.’ “
In the 30-minute speech, Paul positioned the Republican Party alongside the history of the Civil Rights movement, arguing that Republicans fought for African-American rights when Democrats opposed them.
And he admitted that the GOP now has to do a better job of appealing to the black community.
“Now Republicans face a daunting task. Several generations of black voters have never voted Republican and are not very open to even considering the option,” he said.
“How did the Republican Party, the party of the great emancipator [Abraham Lincoln], lose the trust and faith of an entire race?” Paul later asked.
Paul argued that the reason black voters now overwhelmingly support Democrats is because, following the Great Depression, the Democratic Party became synonymous with entitlements.
“The Democrats promised equalizing outcomes through unlimited federal assistance while Republicans offered something that seemed less tangible —the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets,” he said.
Paul went on to argue for free markets, school choice and a less interventionist national security policy — all tenets of the libertarianism his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), brought to prominence during his own campaigns for the presidency.
Paul also cited his legislative initiative to eliminate minimum sentencing laws and give judges more jurisdiction over sentences.
“Our federal mandatory minimum sentences are simply heavy-handed and arbitrary. They can affect anyone at any time, though they disproportionately affect those without the means to fight them,” he said.
Paul invoked both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush in making the case for his bill, noting they’ve both admitted to using illegal drugs, but neither was charged for it.
“Now, you might think I’m about to tell you a story about racism in America, where the rich white kid gets off, and the black kid goes to jail. It could well be, and often is, but that is not this story,” he said.
“Barack Obama and George Bush were lucky. The law could have put both of them away for their entire young adulthood. Neither one would have been employable, much less president.”
The crowd was largely polite and receptive to Paul’s address — there was applause at points throughout his question-and-answer session — but the event also had its tense moments.
At one point, two students rushed to the front of the stage and waved a sign that read, “Howard University doesn’t support white supremacy.” They were removed by security.
Paul joked that he “wasn’t sure if my speech would be entertaining but now ...,” and then went on with the rest of his speech.
There were awkward moments as well that showed Paul was inexperienced speaking to a largely black audience.
He was met with incredulous shouts of “Yes!” when he asked the crowd if they would have known the NAACP was founded by Republicans. At one point, Paul blanked on the name of the first popularly elected African-American senator, and drew derisive laughter as the crowd helped him with the name: “Edward Brooke!”
Paul’s willingness to reach out to what he admitted was a tough crowd is an early indication he’s taking 2016 seriously — and it establishes a precedent that exceeds what his father was willing or able to accomplish in his own failed bids.
Paul supporters insist that if he can expand his support beyond the Tea Party and libertarian crowds that have helped launch him to national prominence after his election to the Senate in 2010, he has a good shot at the GOP nomination in 2016.
—Updated at 5:40 p.m. to reflect the correct race of the teacher, who was white.