Rand Paul-Cory Booker bromance: how two political opposites attracted

Sens. Rand Paul and Cory Booker, a tea partyer and a Northeast liberal, introduced legislation to reform the criminal justice system. It shows where the far left and far right can agree.

Molly Riley and Julio Cortez / AP / File
On the left, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky speaks at Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority event in Washington, Friday, June 20, 2014. On the right, then-Mayor Cory Booker speaks at a press conference in Newark, N.J., April 4, 2012.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R) and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (D) teamed up again on Tuesday to introduce legislation that would begin to reform the nation’s burgeoning criminal justice system, especially for young, nonviolent offenders.

Tuesday’s proposed legislation, which the two have billed the REDEEM Act, focuses both on the skyrocketing costs of incarceration for taxpayers and the heavy toll that harsh sentences – many having to do with low-level drug convictions – levy on the young, nonviolent offenders.

It is the second time last month that these seeming strange political bedfellows, both with hopes for higher office, have come together. Last month, they introduced legislation that would forbid the federal government from spending any money to interfere with state marijuana laws.

The partnership signals how – on certain issues – the far right and far left can find common ground in curtailing the reach of government power and bolstering a sense of social justice.

Moreover, for tea party-favorite Senator Paul, the proposed legislation and the cooperation with Senator Booker, a black northeastern liberal close to President Obama, counter the perception that the right is indifferent to civil rights, all with a get-the-government-off-our-backs agenda. Last year, too, Paul joined forces with another northeastern liberal, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D), proposing legislation that would unshackle federal judges from harsh mandatory minimum sentences put in place during the height of the “war on drugs.”  

The bill unveiled Tuesday would be the first to allow adults “a broad-based federal path” to seal nonviolent criminal records, which often prevent people convicted of low-level crimes from getting a good job. It also offers incentives for states to give kids under 18 alternative punishments, keeping nonviolent offenders out of the adult criminal justice system.

“The biggest impediment to civil rights and employment in our country is a criminal record,” said Paul in a statement. “Our current system is broken and has trapped tens of thousands of young men and women in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. Many of these young people could escape this trap if criminal justice were reformed, if records were expunged after time served, and if nonviolent crimes did not become a permanent blot preventing employment.”

But the bill, known fully as the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act, also lifts the ban on those convicted of crimes from receiving federal benefits like food stamps and family assistance – bans conservatives have long insisted upon.

Tea partyers and Occupy Wall Street activists probably won’t be clasping hands in friendship anytime soon, but libertarian conservatives and social justice liberals may find other areas to raise their ideological banners to further differing political ends.

David Brat, the tea party David who slew Republican establishment Goliath Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia in June, sounds almost Occupy-like on the stump, telling a church gathering in April: “I’m an economist. I’m pro-business. I’m pro-big business making profits. But what I’m absolutely against is big business in bed with big government. And that’s the problem.”

Such radical economic libertarianism would never sit well with most social-justice liberals, but the ideological overlap could be mutually beneficial for the aims of both: breaking what both call “corporate welfare,” giving states greater freedom from federal power, and liberalizing an expensive criminal justice system overloaded by minorities and the poor – and paid for by the American taxpayer.

“The REDEEM Act will ensure that our tax dollars are being used in smarter, more productive ways,” Booker said in a statement Tuesday. “It will also establish much-needed sensible reforms that keep kids out of the adult correctional system, protect their privacy so a youthful mistake can remain a youthful mistake, and help make it less likely that low-level adult offenders reoffend.”

Earlier this year, Paul and Booker engaged in some Tweeting that bordered on a budding bromance, in which the two discussed reforming both prison and marijuana laws.

“@CoryBooker doesn’t RT [re-tweet] me enough,” joked Paul, in holiday lament about the lack of bipartisanship last December.  

“U, me & 'feats of strength:' Senate floor, name the time…@SenRandPaul” Booker tweeted back, as the two alluded to the fictional holiday “Festivus” from the show “Seinfeld.”

“@CoryBooker how about mandatory minimum sentencing reform instead?”

“Yes, If u throw in reforming Fed Hemp & Marijuana laws u've got a deal!...@SenRandPaul.”

The legislation these two have sponsored since these friendly tweets has not become law yet. But drug reform activists remain optimistic.

“The fact that two young and rising stars of both parties, both rumored to be considering future White House runs, are so passionately embracing criminal justice reform shows how politically popular these issues have become,” Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “Voters want reform and smart elected officials know that. This legislation is good policy and good politics.”

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