Sen. Rand Paul
is gaining attention in the black community for many of his positions on issues such as school choice and prison sentencing reform, and is stirring talk among the Democratic Party's most reliable voters.
"He's a different voice in the arena that we don't traditionally hear," interim NAACP President Lorraine Miller told National Public Radio
. She said she expects to invite the Kentucky Republican senator to speak at the organization's national conference in Las Vegas.
Benjamin Jealous, Miller's predecessor, has hailed Paul's positions, noting that an NAACP poll has shown most blacks think Republicans "don't care at all about civil rights," but 14 percent say they would vote for a Republican if that person were committed to civil rights.
Since 1964, Democrats have had a grip
on the black vote, earning no less than 82 percent of it. The association of civil rights legislation with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson solidified black votes for the Democratic Party when Kennedy proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Johnson signed it when he became president after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
Paul, however, is speaking to the black community in ways it hasn't heard in years, NPR reports.
"He's done what most conventional Republicans would be too fearful to do: dive into situations that would make them uncomfortable," says lawyer and GOP commentator Ron Christie, who worked in the George W. Bush administration. "I find it fascinating that he has gone into communities where Republicans typically don't connect, and don't listen."
But Paul has sometimes stumbled when it comes to attracting black voters. For example, after he won Kentucky's Senate primary in 2010, he said in an MSNBC interview that private business should not have to abide by the Civil Rights Act.
Paul, though, quickly changed his statement, saying that he agrees with "the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws."
Paul also drew criticism during his speech over a year ago at Howard University
when he said black Republicans founded the NAACP, but turned the jeers into applause when he said the nation's drug laws and courts "disproportionately punish the black community."
Miller and other black leaders call the issue "mass incarceration," and say it is a "pervasive issue in our community."
Paul has also been pushing on Capitol Hill to revamp mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses, comparing the regulations to the nation's Jim Crow era. Further, he says, laws that prevent felons from voting amount to voter suppression that affects the black community.
"If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago," Paul told the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. "Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs. The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African-American or Latino."
Issues of sentencing and incarceration won't make Paul a civil-rights champion, Miller said, "but we're in no position not to hear from other voices out there in the public venue. People are rational and can make up their own minds about whether he's selling wolf tickets or really has something we can work with."
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