It is official.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) is running for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. But why should black America care?
Pay close attention to his views on mass incarceration and the war on drugs, which could move the Republican Party forward on criminal justice reform and possibly attract blacks, younger voters and other Democratic base voters. But don’t lose sight of the senator’s past statements against civil rights, which sound a lot like the same ol’ GOP story. And that story, brought to you by the tea party, has not been very friendly to black people these days.
“I am running for president to return our country to the principles of liberty and limited government,” Paul said on his campaign website.
There is no question that the conservative libertarian has been reaching out to African-Americans with a message about the need to reform the justice system, end mass incarceration and the war on drugs, and demilitarize the police. Such an outreach strategy, to begin to make inroads among the black and Latino voters they have neglected and repudiated, is necessary for the Republicans to remain a viable national party in the long term.
Senator Paul spoke at Howard University two years ago, making the case for the Republican message of economic growth before a skeptical crowd. And recently, he spoke at Bowie State University in Maryland, another historically black college, with a call for criminal justice reform, including restoring voting rights for ex-felons, ending civil asset forfeitures, and decrying the use of petty fines against poor communities in Ferguson and elsewhere. “If we’re for families with a mother and father around, we need to be for fixing the criminal justice system,” the senator said. “Criminal justice, or the lack of criminal justice, it’s not a black or white problem,” Paul added. “It’s a poverty problem.”
And the presidential candidate believes there is an “undercurrent of unease” when it comes to the criminal justice system in America, also acknowledging the role of race and the persistence of segregation. “There’s a racial outcome to this. I don’t think there’s a racial intention,” he said at Bowie State. “But I tell people that I think they’re not looking if they don’t think that the incarceration problem in our country is not skewed towards one race. I don’t think it’s purposeful but I do think it is actual and it is real and we should do something about it.”
To his credit, Senator Paul has worked in a bipartisan fashion on criminal justice reform legislation, including his work with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) on the REDEEM Act, which would seal nonviolent criminal records at the federal level and automatically expunge records for juveniles under the age of 15. Further, he introduced legislation to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, a cornerstone of the war on drugs.
Paul would also restore the voting rights of all nonviolent felons, eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine, and decriminalize possession of small amounts of controlled substances.
“I think he’s been a different kind of Republican, a Jack Kemp kind of Republican in terms of growing the party,” said former Congressman J.C. Watts (R-OK), a black Republican, on MSNBC recently. “And you know I’ve had his ear for the past two, two and a half years. I encouraged him to go to Ferguson, we set up meetings for him in Detroit, in Atlanta and Chicago and other places around the country to talk about issues that I think impact different communities. And he’s done that, he’s been sincere and he’s been consistent.”
The reformer image that Rand Paul has been projecting to the black community of late sounds good. And if he manages to get traction, he could influence and help transform a party that has been hostile to black people and has won elections at their expense. So what’s the problem? The problem is the side of Rand Paul that reminds us more of the Ted Cruz wing of the GOP, that unhinged, unstable, not-ready-for-primetime brand of tea party extremism.
For example, Paul wanted to get rid of Medicare, though it seems he might be rethinking that. In 2011, he said that if you believe in a right to healthcare, “you believe in slavery.” The senator also compared food stamps to slavery, as if he is qualified to speak on the issue of what slaves endured. He also said no one has a right to food or water, because that would be servitude. Further, Sen. Paul would ban all abortions through his Life at Conception Act. He finds same-sex marriage offensive, and he voted against the Violence Against Women Act. And Paul would increase defense spending by making cuts to education, environmental protection and infrastructure.
Most of all, although he now claims he never was against the Civil Rights Act, Rand Paul has a long track record of opposing the Civil Rights Act and sanctioning the rights of businesses to discriminate. This became an issue in 2010 when the senatorial candidate said, “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.”
Further, as a student at Baylor University in 1982, Paul wrote in a college paper editorial that while “eliminating racial and sexual prejudice” had “noble aspiration,” anti-discrimination laws are coercive. He added, “every piece of anti-discrimination legislation passed over the past few decades … ignores one of the basic, inalienable rights of man — the right to discriminate.”
“He’s certainly welcome to seek our votes, but he’ll need to do a much better job if he actually expects to win them,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) in a commentary in The Root last year. Rep. Lee — who took issue with Paul’s claims he has the best civil rights record in Congress — noted the senator also opposes equal pay and increases in the minimum wage, economic policies that would benefit African-Americans the most.
So in the end, which Rand Paul should black voters believe, the champion of civil rights or the one who talks the scary stuff black folks don’t want to hear?
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove