Rand Paul courts the black vote

Alexander Bolton

DETROIT — The GOP field office on Livernois Avenue is a squat, brick building with a grillwork of bars on its windows. The outpost in the predominantly Democratic, African-American neighborhood is a place where prominent Republicans don’t often venture.

Rand PaulRand PaulHow low is the bar for presidential candidates, anyway? Lawmaker seeks to investigate Obama's foreign tax compliance law Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears MORE seems right at home.

The first thing he does when he walks in is to break up the rows of chairs assembled in front of a podium.

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“I think we can get a better conversation if we’re all sitting and we’re all in a big circle rather than at a podium. I think it sort of lends to a better atmosphere,” he tells the small crowd, which is roughly half African-American and half Caucasian.

Paul, the junior Republican senator from Kentucky, has held other informal discussions with voters in mostly African-American communities throughout the year.

“I just had a meeting like this in Atlanta last week and before in Ferguson,” he noted, referring to the St. Louis suburb rocked by riots this summer after a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager.   

He’s also had meetings in Chicago and the west end of Louisville, where Cassius Clay was raised. He held another one in Detroit in December, when he also spoke to the Detroit Economic Club. This one, in Detroit’s Sherwood Forest, was the first open to the press, according to an aide.

Instead of shooting out policy proposals from behind a lectern, Paul sets up the meetings as listening sessions — just what Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonColbert: Trump is 'a coward' Debate commission admits 'issues' with Trump's audio Florida paper endorses Clinton, writes separate piece on why not Trump MORE did in upstate New York when she ran for Senate in 2000. At the time, Democrats saw the state as enemy territory.

Paul emphasizes criminal justice reform as well as conservative approaches to fighting poverty and improving education.  

The senator is usually a harsh critic of President Obama, who remains popular among many African-Americans. But on the subject of criminal justice reform, he praises Obama warmly.  

“We talked a little bit about criminal justice reform and I complimented him on some of the commutation of sentences he’s done. He tried to correct some of the crack powder disparity with cocaine but still some people are already in jail,” Paul told The Hill in an interview, noting a rare phone call he had with Obama a few weeks ago.

“There’s some people who have been in jail 15, 18 years for crack cocaine whereas their white counterparts got out in six months or a year. He let some of those people go early,” he said. “I complimented him on it and told him I would work with him on criminal justice reform.”

Paul also wants to make it easier for non-violent adult and juvenile criminal offenders to seal their records; to restore voting rights to non-violent ex-felons; and to restore Fifth Amendment protections against police seizure of assets without due process.

He is sharply critical of his own party for neglecting the interests of African-Americans but argues Democrats have taken black voters for granted.

“Remember Domino’s Pizza? They admitted, ‘Hey, our pizza crust sucks.’ The Republican Party brand sucks and so people don’t want to be a Republican and for 80 years, African-Americans have had nothing to do with Republicans,” he said.

Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who represents Ferguson in the House and plans to work with Paul on the Redeem Act, which would make it easier to expunge criminal records, agrees that his party has taken black votes for granted.  

“When you think about the problems leading up to Ferguson, white Democrats have been silent and since Ferguson occurred they have been silent. They haven’t made any concrete proposals about how we make this situation better and how we give equal justice under the law.

“I haven’t heard that from my U.S. senator or statewide elected official,” Clay said in reference to Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillClinton campaign chair jabs at Trump's age Election-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables The Trail 2016: Miss Universe crashes campaign MORE (D-Mo.) and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.

“I hope that would be the discussion of the 2016 campaign and beyond,” he added, predicting Paul will pick up African-American votes “if he sticks on those points.”

If Paul and his Democratic allies can move legislation that alleviates the unfair treatment of blacks in the criminal justice system, Clay said, “he will have a record of addressing those concerns; that’s what people will judge him by.”

Cornell Belcher, who was the lead pollster for the Democratic National Committee during Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, said he personally applauds Paul’s work. 

“I’m a Democratic operative but let me say hats off to what Rand Paul is doing, not as a partisan but just as, quite frankly, as someone who believes in the bigger picture,” said Belcher, who is African-American. “The minority community’s interests are better served when parties are competing.”

Belcher cautioned the Republican Party overall is being dragged down by what he called “flat-out hostility” of the Tea Party to the nation’s first black president and the African-American community as a whole.

He said its hard for black voters to “have a conversation with a group of people that you see as openly hostile” but praised Paul for breaking out.

“It is refreshing because it's courageous. You don’t see anyone else on the right giving voice to those issues,” he said.

On the economic front, Paul wants to turn the entire city of Detroit and other blighted areas into economic enterprise zones. He would give Detroit $1.3 billion in tax breaks over 10 years.

That idea peaked the interest of Don Studvent, the African-American owner of 1917 American Bistro, which holds regular poetry nights a few doors down from the GOP office on Livernois Avenue. He provided turkey wraps for the event with Paul.  

Politics “is not a black and white issue, it’s a green and white issue,” he said.

Studvent wants to grow his business any way he can and asked why Dan Gilbert, the owner of Quicken Loans, can get millions of dollars in tax breaks for his plans in downtown Detroit but he can’t.

Paul said his solution to the moribund public education system in Detroit and other urban areas is to introduce free market principles and deregulation.

He says he wants to give kids in poor urban areas the chance to “drive 10 miles across town to a rich neighborhood” and go to school there. Another idea is to let kids learn from the world’s best teachers via the Internet.

He quips teacher-student ratios should be “a million per teacher.” He says local teachers could still work with small classrooms to reinforce the lessons of superstar online teachers, who he said should be compensated richly for high-quality instruction.

“I’m a big believer in the extraordinary teacher and then paying the extraordinary teacher like they play in the NBA or the NFL,” he said.