Sen. Rand Paul Tries To Repair GOP's Image With Minorities
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In recent elections the Republican Party has struggled to find much support among African-American voters. That though did not dissuade Kentucky's Republican Senator Rand Paul from making a pitch yesterday at Howard University, the historically black college in the nation's capital.
NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was listening.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Rand Paul spoke carefully from a teleprompter and posed this question to his audience of young African-American students.
SENATOR RAND PAUL: How did the party that elected the first black U.S. senator, the party that elected the first 20 African-American congressmen, how did that party become a party that now loses 95 percent of the black vote?
LIASSON: Paul answered the question, describing how the party of Abraham Lincoln did just fine with African-Americans until the Great Depression. Then he offered an explanation similar to Mitt Romney's election postmortem - Democrats give out free stuff while Republicans just offer freedom.
PAUL: The Democrats promised equalizing outcome, everybody will get something through unlimited federal assistance, while Republicans offered something that seemed less tangible - the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets.
LIASSON: Paul acknowledged Republicans have done a bad job of presenting their own history. He argued that after the Civil War and until the 1960s, it was Democrats who were responsible for Jim Crow.
PAUL: If I would have said, who do you think the founders of the NAACP are, do you think they were Republicans or Democrats, would everyone in here know that they were all Republicans?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.
PAUL: All right, all right. You know more than I know.
LIASSON: There were more groans from the crowd of Howard students when Paul said this...
PAUL: The first - one of the African-American U.S. senators was a guy named uh... blanking on his name, from Massachusetts.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Brooke.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Brooke.
PAUL: Edwin Brooks(ph). Yes.
LIASSON: Paul was referring to Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke.
As the question and answer period went on, the disconnect between Paul and his audience only grew. Here's how Paul defended the Republican push for state voter ID laws.
PAUL: If you liken using a driver's license to literacy tests, you demean the horror of what happened in the '40s and the '50s, maybe probably from 1910 all the way through the 1960s in the South. It was horrific. Nobody is in favor of that. No Republican is in favor of that. But showing your driver's license to have an honest election I think is not unreasonable.
LIASSON: Howard senior Julian Lewis, who asked Paul the question about voting rights, wasn't satisfied.
JULIAN LEWIS: These voter ID laws disenfranchise five million black and brown people. And he blatantly ignores those facts. But he will say well, that I think everyone should have a driver's license. And he tries to make it a minuscule issue. Like it's just a driver's license.
LIASSON: Paul said the GOP was often miscast as uncaring. And that he planned to change that by promoting policies popular with African-Americans - a pull back from foreign wars, a reform of mandatory minimum drug sentences and school choice. For Monique Dodd, that was good, but not good enough.
MONIQUE DODD: I like his idea with no federal minimum for drug sentences. However, I feel like in order for the Republicans Party to actually reach out to African-American voters and young people, they have to put some action behind their words.
LIASSON: Many students praised Paul for showing up at Howard, even if they weren't persuaded by his pitch to give the GOP a second chance.
PAUL: When the time is right, I hope that African-Americans will again look to the party of emancipation, civil liberty and individual freedom.
LIASSON: Paul is contemplating at run for president in 2016. His speech at Howard might not win him any African-American support, but it can't hurt him or his party if it helps to repair their image with minorities and white moderate voters.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.