MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky on Friday broke with fellow Republicans who have pushed for stricter voting laws as a way to crack down on fraud, saying the party was alienating and insulting African-Americans.
“Everybody’s gone completely crazy on this voter ID thing,” Paul said in an interview Friday, adding that much of the bitterness in the debate over voting rights was wrapped up in race. “I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue, because it’s offending people.”
Paul traveled to Memphis – a mostly black city and a Democratic stronghold with its own painful racial history – to speak at the spring meeting of the Republican National Committee. But before he talked to his fellow Republicans, he sat down with a group of black pastors to discuss his views on voting, public education and antipoverty policy.
It was the latest leg of Paul’s cross-country tour through places such as Chicago and Detroit where it might not seem obvious for a conservative Republican to stop and ask for an audience.
Paul’s remarks seemed certain to stir concern among Republicans over whether the senator, a libertarian-minded ophthalmologist who entered public office only three years ago, is the kind of presidential candidate who can appeal to the conservative voters who have so much influence in selecting the nominee.
After his meeting with the pastors, Paul traveled a few blocks down the street to address the gathering of Republicans. But he made no mention of voting rights there. Instead, he hit on the message that the party needs to soften its edges and start being more sympathetic to groups that have felt overlooked and maligned by Republicans.
Voting rights for felons
In the interview, Paul stressed his commitment to restoring voting rights for felons, an issue he said black crowds repeatedly brought up whenever he visited them.
“The bigger issue actually is whether you get to vote if you have a felony conviction,” he said. “There’s 180,000 people in Kentucky who can’t vote. And I don’t know the racial breakdown, but it’s probably more black than white.”
Just like the Republican Party he criticized, Paul has his own issues with black voters. He has struggled to explain statements in the past in which he has hedged when asked whether he fully supports the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although he has clarified recently that he would have voted for the act, he has expressed concern that the provisions of the landmark law that deal with private institutions may have gone too far.
Some blacks ‘not buying it’
Some black Democrats were less than persuaded by Paul’s efforts at outreach. State Rep. G.A. Hardaway published a letter Friday that criticized Paul for his past statements on the Civil Rights Act and for saying that he does not think it is unreasonable for people to be asked to produce their driver’s licenses when voting.
“Get real, senator,” Hardaway said. “To come here, to Memphis of all places, and espouse the principles and ‘goodness’ of today’s Republican Party. Excuse me if I’m not buying it.”
After his meeting with the pastors, Paul held a news conference and acknowledged that he still had a lot of work to do. “Sometimes I get, ‘I like what you’re saying; I’m still not voting for you,’ ” he said with a laugh. “That’s why you’ve got to keep saying it.”