Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said Wednesday that Republicans face long odds in connecting with black voters and are often cast as unsympathetic to the needs of blacks and minorities — something he says the party needs to change.
Paul, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said in a speech at Howard University that the Republican party was rooted in the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and efforts to rid the South of oppressive Jim Crow laws. He expressed hope that black voters would be more open to Republicans, pointing to policies promoting school choice, economic opportunity and the decriminalization of drug laws.
"Republicans face a daunting task. Several generations of black voters have never voted Republican and are not very open to considering the option," Paul said. By speaking at Howard, Paul said he hoped students would "hear me out — that you will see me for who I am, not the caricature sometimes presented by political opponents."
Paul's speech to black students and faculty members at the historically black university was emblematic of Republicans' efforts to attract a broader swath of voters following President Barack Obama's re-election. Obama, the nation's first black president, received more than 9 in 10 votes from blacks in 2008 and 2012 and strong support among Latinos, prompting Republicans to discuss ways of broadening their outreach to minorities.
The Kentucky senator, an eye doctor and son of libertarian-leaning former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, was briefly interrupted during his speech by a young man who unfurled a banner that said the university does not support "white supremacy." The man was removed from the auditorium.
Paul faced questions during his 2010 Senate campaign when he expressed misgivings about how the Civil Rights Act bans racial discrimination by private businesses. Asked about his position on the 1964 legislation, passed under the presidency of Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, Paul told the students he had never opposed the Civil Rights Act.
He argued that many Democrats had opposed civil rights in the South during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt but many black voters became impatient with Republicans in the years that followed over economic policies. He said Democrats offer "unlimited federal assistance" and policies that put "food on the table but too often, I think, don't lead to jobs and meaningful success."
Paul said using taxes to "punish the rich" hurts everyone in the economy, along with more regulations and higher debt. "Big government is not a friend of African-Americans," he said.
Many students said they didn't agree with Paul on many issues but gave him credit for speaking to them. "It could be very intimidating. You're sitting in a room with people who don't support you for the most part so I do give him credit for coming," said Tasia Hawkins, an 18-year-old freshman from New York.