April 10, 2013 10:40 pm

Rand Paul makes appeal to black voters

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Rand Paul, the rising Republican star, made a direct plea for black voters to rethink their allegiance to the Democratic party, arguing that the promise of “unlimited federal assistance” had too often failed to bring “meaningful success” to black Americans.

Instead, the Kentucky senator said he supported a government that “leaves you alone”.

“Big and oppressive government has long been the enemy of freedom, something black Americans know all too well,” he said.

In a wide ranging speech at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, the Kentucky senator touched on issues ranging from his support for leniency for non-violent drug offenders to the Republican party’s role in the civil rights movement. He also shrugged off a question about efforts by Republican governors and legislatures to introduce voter ID rules last year, which many saw as an effort to decrease voter turnout among minorities, saying it was demeaning to compare the new rules to the literacy tests at the polls during the era of Jim Crow.

But at the heart of the speech was a recognition that Republicans – “the party of the great Emancipator”, Abraham Lincoln – had lost the “trust and faith” of minorities.

“What gets lost is that the Republican Party has always been the party of civil rights and voting rights,” he said. “Because Republicans believe that the federal government is limited in its function – some have concluded that Republicans are somehow inherently insensitive to minority rights. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The address showed once again that Mr Paul, who has not been shy about his presidential ambitions, is seeking to lead the effort within his party to rehabilitate the Republican brand following its stinging defeat in the 2012 election.

It came weeks after Mr Paul’s marathon filibuster in Congress against US President Barack Obama’s appointment to head the CIA garnered national attention, as did a speech on immigration policy that suggested the Kentucky senator could be open to a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a critical stamp of approval from a Tea Party favourite.

But it is doubtful whether the Howard University speech, which included some awkward moments, will do much to broaden Mr Paul’s appeal to African Americans.

“It must have been a light-hearted speech,” was the response of Professor Lorenzo Morris, who teaches black politics, in response to Mr Paul’s assertion that Republicans had played an important role in civil rights.

After he stumbled on the name of the first popularly elected black senator, Edward Brooke, a Republican from Massachusetts, the senator quizzed the audience about whether they were aware that the founding members of the NAACP, the civil rights group, had been Republican.

When the answer clearly came back in the affirmative, he said he did not mean to be “insulting”.

“The thing is that I think the general public – the Republican Party hasn’t talked enough about the great history and the interaction between the Republican Party and black history and voting rights in our country,” he said.

“I mean frankly it is an uphill battle for me to try to convince you that we haven’t changed . . . that’s what I’m trying to do anyway,” he said.

He also addressed controversies surrounding his own previous comments. Mr Paul said he had “never wavered” in his support for the Civil Rights Act, the landmark legislation that desegregated the country. But in 2010 he questioned aspects of the law that put restrictions on private business owners to discriminate.

“I abhor racism. I think it`s a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant. But at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I think there should be absolutely no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that`s mostly what the Civil Rights Act was about, to my mind,” he told the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal in 2010.

Although he said segregation in the South was a “stain” on US history because integration there happened 100 years after it did in the northeast, he blamed black voters’ break with the Republican party on their impatience for “economic emancipation” during the Depression.

“The Democrats promised equalising outcomes through unlimited federal assistance while Republicans offered something that seemed less tangible – the promise of equalising opportunity through free markets,” he said on Wednesday.

Mr Paul also sought to highlight his belief that first time non-violent drug offenders ought to be put in counselling and not imprisoned, a position that underscores his libertarian leanings and does not sit well with traditional “law and order” Republicans.

He recounted the story of two young men who had used illegal drugs – one white and wealthy with an influential father and grandfather, and another of mixed race from a single parent household

“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. But that is not this story. In this story . . . both young men were not caught,” he said. “Instead, they both went on to become presidents of the United States.”

Neither Mr Obama or George W. Bush would have been president – or even employable – had they been put away for their entire young adulthood, he said.

He tied a legislative proposal to repeal federal mandatory minimum sentences that “disproportionately punishes the black community” to “government sanctioned racism”, drawing applause from the crowd.

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