Paul ramps up outreach to African-American community

Greg Nash

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has launched a multipronged offensive to win blacks over to the GOP and build up his own cross-party appeal ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

In an effort to woo black voters, Paul is pushing six bills on a variety of issues, ranging from the criminal justice system to voting rights.

{mosads}He has teamed up with Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), the Senate’s only black Democrat, to offer the Redeem Act, aimed at getting juveniles with criminal records back on track. It would automatically expunge the records of nonviolent offenders younger than 15.

Another bill with Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, would give judges greater flexibility in sentencing for federal crimes. A measure sponsored with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would restore voting rights to nonviolent ex-felons. Another piece of legislation, the Reset Act, would classify some drug crimes as misdemeanors and eliminate the sentencing disparity between cocaine- and crack-related offenses.

His Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act would restore the constitutional protection against seizures without due process of law, a practice the American Civil Liberties Union argues goes “hand-in-hand with racial profiling.” He also has legislation with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that would create tax and regulatory incentives for businesses to set up shop in impoverished areas. Paul touted the proposal during remarks to the Detroit Economic Club.

At the White House picnic last week, Rep. Lacy Clay, the Democrat who represents Ferguson, Mo., approached Paul about working together on the Redeem Act. Clay is also interested in teaming up with Paul on the bill limiting seizures of property from people suspected but not convicted of crimes.

In the wake of the civil unrest in Ferguson, Clay said the U.S. justice system is on trial, and black voters “want to hear from candidates who can address the issue of having one set of law for all Americans, in other words, equal justice.”

He says Paul could make surprising gains among black voters, if he were to square off against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential contest.

“At this point, the African-American electorate is looking at all the potential candidates and making a decision based on who works on their behalf,” he said. “Whoever advocates that is going to get African-American votes.”  

Republicans have struggled to connect with black voters in presidential elections. In the most recent presidential elections, the GOP nominee has secured only 5 percent, 1 percent, 7 percent and 3 percent of the black vote, according to Gallup.

Paul was critical of the police response to predominantly black protesters, after a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager in the St. Louis suburb.

“Anyone who thinks race does not skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention,” Paul wrote in an op-ed for Time magazine.

“Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth,” he wrote.

But other members of the Congressional Black Caucus insist Paul cannot overcome ingrained antipathy toward the GOP, which they say has been made worse by its sustained assault on the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Paul was not invited to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual legislative conference, which begins Wednesday.

“You’re looking not just at the candidate, but you’re looking at the party and the party’s practices and its principles overall. It’s mostly the Republican Party that has been pushing the limits on federal voting rights, the federal voter ID law and eliminating early voting. Those things that would free and help folks to vote,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.).

“The things that he would have to do to get a Republican nomination are the very things that would prevent the black folks from supporting him,” he added.

In 2010, Paul attracted controversy for remarks he made about the Civil Rights Act in relation to property rights. Paul has since said his comments were misconstrued.

Paul has made a concerted effort to reach out to black communities in the past year.

He helped open a Republican National Committee office in Detroit geared toward outreach to minority voters and delivered speeches at the Urban League in Cincinnati and at Howard University, a historically black college.

Last week, he attended a forum on governing solutions for urban America with two black Republicans, former Reps. J.C. Watts (Okla.) and Artur Davis (Ala.).

Members of the black caucus, however, say Paul needs to focus more on changing his own party’s inclination to cut social programs.

“It’s hard for people to take it seriously,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

He criticized the GOP for trying to cut funding to Pell Grants, which are important to black students. Paul says he wants to eliminate the Department of Education but keep Pell Grants.

Cummings also cited Republican opposition to the Voting Rights Act.

“Whether it’s fair to him or not, he gets painted with a very broad brush,” he said. “That’s his biggest problem. He’s part of a party that is not seen as supportive of African-Americans and their children.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), also former chairman of the black caucus, said it would take years for black voters to overcome their distrust of the GOP.

“He’s trying to send out a signal that he wants to represent more than one segment of the population, and that’s good, but the problem is. it’s going to take three or four elections during which candidates of the Republican Party embrace the kinds of issues he’s embracing and more before African-Americans come to the conclusion that he may be serious,” he said.

Brian Darling, an aide to Paul, said, “If people can dispassionately look at what Rand Paul’s doing and take away the party label, I think they’d be very happy with it. But sadly politics has crept in, and the Democratic Party has put a target on Rand Paul’s back, and they’ve really been going after him. … They see that he’s promoting real reforms, and it bothers them that members of their own party are joining hands with Rand Paul,” he said.a

Tags Congressional Black Caucus Rand Paul voting rights
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