In a speech at Howard University that touched on education, foreign policy, federal prison sentencing and economics, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., pitched himself and the Republican Party to African-American voters Wednesday.
Paul, a libertarian with presidential aspirations, faced criticism during his 2010 Senate campaign for supposedly stating opposition to the civil rights act when discussing whether the federal government should be allowed to dictate who private businesses serve. Asked about the controversy, Paul said his position had been mischaracterized — his concerns about the act related to extensions made to regulating smokers and mandatory calorie counts on menus.
"I've never been against the civil rights act, ever," he said during a question and answer session with students following his address. "I do question some of the ramifications in the extensions."
He also defended Republicans against charges of voter suppression in connection with recent state efforts to pass voter ID laws. Democrats have said Republicans are targeting poor and minority voters — ho typically vote for Democrats — and are more likely than others to be without an ID.
"I think if you liken using a driver's license to a literacy test you demean the horror of what happened in the 40s and 50s. It was horrific. No one is in favor of that," Paul said. "But showing your driver's license to have an honest election is not unreasonable."
Paul shrewdly highlighted his position on eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences on some drug charges, something many feel disproportionately targets blacks, as a point of agreement but he framed the issue in the large context of individual freedom.
"Some argue with evidence that our drug laws are biased-that they are the new Jim Crow, but to simply be against them for that reason misses a larger point," he said. "They are unfair to everyone, largely because of the one size fits all federal mandatory sentences."
He also raised the discriminatory Jim Crow laws as an example of big government gone bad and made the historical case for Republicans as champions of African-American rights.
"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," Paul said. "The story of emancipation, voting rights and citizenship, from Frederick Douglass until the modern civil rights era, is in fact the history of the Republican Party."
Challenged by a student who said he wants a government ready to help him, Paul did not back down from his philosophy.
"Probably we are going to end up disagreeing," he said. "[But] it's not that I believe in no government, I believe in a government that spends what comes in and that's not unreasonable. I think 'leave me alone' is a good mantra for government, because government has to be involved in certain things, but there are many things we can leave government out of."
Acknowledging that his party has earned a deep-seated and negative reputation among black voters, Paul said he didn't expect to win over a majority overnight.
"I'm trying to say the Republican Party is interested in the African-American community and trying to convince some that our ideas, maybe not all immediately, but our ideas are the best for people having hope and jobs," he said.