Rand Paul And Minorities, 'A Date Or A Relationship?'

Senator Rand Paul is reaching out to African-American voters. He recently visited Howard University, one of the country's most prominent historically black universities. Senator Paul talks to host Michel Martin about why he's reaching out, and what his message is for minorities.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program we will hear from a young writer whose fresh take on the last night of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life is filling theaters across the country. Playwright Katori Hall will be with us in a few minutes. But first it's time for a newsmaker conversation with another person whose views might surprise you.

Sen. Rand Paul grabbed the headlines last month when he held the Senate floor for an hours-long standing filibuster over President Obama's nomination to head the CIA. His move won, grudging in some cases, respect from commentators on both right and left for his efforts to call attention to what he saw as the threat of unchecked executive power.

Because of stances like that he's become the darling of the libertarian movement, a Tea Party favorite, if you will, who say they want to see less government intrusion into our daily lives. But now Kentucky's junior senator is trying to broaden his tent. Yesterday he spoke at Howard University, which is one of the country's most prominent historically black universities.

The speech comes at a time when members of his party have been doing some public soul searching about its recent poor showing with the so-called minority voters, and he is with us now. Sen. Rand Paul is with us. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SEN. RAND PAUL: Sure. Glad to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: How did this invitation come about?

PAUL: Well, you know, we actually made the request because I like speaking to college kids and I'd never spoken before to a historically black college. We have - interestingly, once we got this invitation, now we have another invitation on Friday, where I'll speak a historically black college, Simmons College, in Louisville as well.

MARTIN: Are you looking for a date or a relationship?

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL: That's a good question. I think what I tell people is, is that I think there's a lot more of the African-American population that is and will be receptive to the Republican message but we're just not showing up. We haven't been showing up for years. We need to show up in venues and say these are our policies. We want to hear from you.

We care about the issues that interest you and we also want to talk a little bit about the rich Republican history. Because the rich Republican history has all been about emancipation, voting rights, and citizenship.

MARTIN: You know, in recent days, as I mentioned, that the Republican Party - or rather, some key players within the Republican Party - have talked about - there was even a survey reflecting on why the party fared so poorly with minorities, blacks and Latinos, and also Asian-Americans in the last presidential election.

That report, you know, has its perspective. What's your perspective on that?

PAUL: Well, you know, I think when you look at polling data and you say to a Latino voter, you say, do you agree with Republicans on X, Y, and Z, you find that maybe 50 percent or more of Hispanic voters do agree with Republicans on many issues. And it may be not quite as high with African-American voters but it's still significant. Maybe 30, 40 percent of African-American voters do like Republican issues.

I think they are just afraid, they don't think the Republican Party likes them. And so that's why I think we have our job cut out for us to show up, to engage, to have a discussion. I thought we had a wonderful discussion. The students at Howard were very polite, very intelligent, and asked probing questions. They weren't all easy questions, but I thought it was a great rapport.

And I actually got hooked up with someone who I had admired from afar for a long time - Kurt Schmoke, the former mayor from Baltimore. And he and I have agreed, I think for a while now, on the fact that we need to quit handing down these harsh federal penalties for non-violent crime.

MARTIN: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about that. I mean, first of all, Republicans have a long history with Howard University. I mean, General Colin Powell is a former member of the board. You know, the former secretary of housing and urban development, Jack Kemp, was a member of that board.

You said in your opening remarks that some people thought you were either brave or crazy to go there today. You know, why? I mean it implies that the people are dangerous. I mean why?

PAUL: I didn't mean it to be that way. And it meant to be more light-hearted. It wasn't anything about the people. It was more about that the Republican Party just hasn't been showing up. When you look at Republican speakers at Howard, they just haven't been going.

And I think in some ways they just have sort of given up. And I'm here to say that the Republican Party, to be a national party, can't give up on any ethnic group and can't say to any ethnic group we don't care about your vote. We need to be out there competing for the African-American vote. I'm realistic enough to know that when we got, you know, five percent last election, we're not going to win the African-American vote next election.

But I'd like to double and triple that and to say that, look, we're the party for school choice. We're the party that wants a better education. We're the party that's not afraid of anybody and we're not going to just sit still while the schools rot. And a lot of the communities that are African-American, we want to give your kids a choice to go to a real good school.

And I think if we're saying that and we're going into the venues, people are all of a sudden going to wake up and say, you know what, the Democrat Party has been presiding over these crummy schools and they're not getting any better.

MARTIN: Is your - is it your sense that the reason that there is this disconnect between the Republican Party now and minority voters - I want to say so-called minority voters because that is not going to be the case for very many more years - but African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans - is it tactics? Is it policy? Or is it tone?

PAUL: I think all of the above. But the one thing that can change immediately is tone and showing up and participating. And that's what I intend to at least engage on. But you'll also notice that the issues I brought up are not issues that I sort of say, oh, I'm going to be for these issues because they might appeal at Howard. There are things I truly believe in.

I believe we should have a less aggressive foreign policy. I don't think war is always the answer. I believe in a strong national defense but think we do waste some money in the military industrial complex. I believe that our drug laws are too harsh, too long, and unfair to minorities. These aren't things I say just because they might be popular at Howard, but I say them because I truly believe in them.

And I think these are issues that if it got out that all Republicans weren't the same, that there were Republicans who were interested in issues like this, I think all of a sudden you will see some of the African-American votes saying you know what, we believe in economic opportunity. We think high taxes are not good for the economy. We just thought Republicans didn't like us for some other reason.

And so I think if we can get that rapport, get that relationship, all of a sudden the message that big government and debt leads to high prices, which hurts those who are trying to get ahead in our country, whether you're on fixed income, whether you're from a disadvantaged background, high prices hurt you.

But that comes from big government debt. It hurts the college kids at Howard trying to get a job when they get out if we have $16 trillion worth of debt putting a cramp - or a crimp on the economy.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Rand Paul. He is the United States senator from Kentucky, the junior senator. He is a Republican. He spoke yesterday with an audience on the campus of the historically black Howard University here in Washington, D.C. That speech comes at a time when the Republican Party - key figures in the party - have said that they need to reach out, broaden the tent and connect with people of different backgrounds.

Particularly ethnic minorities. You know, to that end, Senator, I noted that you got a very good response when you talked about mandatory minimums, but I also want to flag a question that one of the young people - I think he was the last person you took a question from. And he said, You say that you want the government to leave you alone. I don't want that.

I have - and just to go on say - I'm quoting here but just to expand on that, you know, statistically it is true that African-Americans and Latinos in particular tend to have a different vision of what they want the government to do. They tend to be, on average, more socially conservative than a lot of other white Democrats, but they also tend to believe that they want the government to play a role in ensuring fairness and in creating opportunity.

So given that, I have to ask, you know - and I also do want to flag the fact that during your campaign for office, and I know you say you support the Civil Rights Act, but the fact is you have expressed skepticism about applying some of these remedies to private business.

Given that you favor limited government, which has been a vehicle of opportunity for many minorities, given that you have said you're skeptical about applying these anti-discrimination statutes to private business, how do you bridge that difference of opinion about what the government should do? And what ladder of opportunity do you think you can offer to people of color?

PAUL: Well, I think that's a misunderstanding of my position, that I don't believe we should apply the Civil Rights Act. I've always supported the Civil Rights Act. I never said I hadn't. Always supported the 14th Amendment. In fact, I'm a great believer in the expansion of the 14th Amendment. So no, I think these are things that I do support and have not equivocated on.

But I would say that ultimately, when we talk about opportunity, I do believe, as Milton Friedman said, that nobody spends somebody else's money as wisely as they spend their own. That's why the marketplace is efficient. That's why, when Walmart measures how many things you buy, like how many iPads you buy or how much toilet paper or paper towels or cookies, they're able to distribute goods because they have a self-interest. It's their money and they're trying to maximize their profit for their shareholders.

PAUL: The marketplace works and I'm a huge believer in it, but also I'm a huge believer in that right now we have 14 percent black unemployment, double the national rate. It isn't getting better. Big debt and big government's not helping. What we need is a massive infusion of money into the private marketplace like we did under Reagan, and I know my crowd - necessarily the crowd at Howard didn't necessarily love Reagan, but I want to tell what I honestly believe is the truth. Leave a bunch of money in the economy, meaning cut taxes, cut them significantly, make taxes simpler and you will have a boom in this country that will create tens of millions of jobs.

When Reagan cut taxes, we had seven percent growth in one year and eight million jobs created. If you extrapolate that to today's time, you'd get 12 million jobs created, but you have to believe that people spend their own money more wisely than government will.

MARTIN: Well, what is your vision, though? What do you say to this young man who says that I don't look to the government to save me. I look to the government to help me create - to create opportunities so that I can fairly compete.

PAUL: I think government does create opportunities in the sense that if you look at lawless parts of the world where there is no protection of property, where you can't protect your property and the name in your property, you can't borrow against that property, so no capital develops and there is no capitalism and there is no marketplace.

So the government does have a role. They are an arbiter. They are the one who protects property, protects the sanctity and the name that goes and attaches to the house. They protect transactions. They protect commerce. There is a role for government.

I also said to this young man that I do believe in government. It's not that I believe in no government. I believe in $2.6 trillion worth of government. I just don't think we should borrow from China to pay for anything. I think we should spend what comes in. That's what every family budget does and that's what the government should do, but I think when we don't do that, when we say, oh, the government should be everything to everyone, we run up a $16 trillion debt that many people say is the burden that's costing us a million jobs a year and is the burden that's causing our economy not to grow.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about an issue that may or may not on its face appear to be a racial issue, and I'm going to ask if you'd just stick around for just a couple more minutes when we have that conversation. I'm speaking with Rand Paul. He's the junior United States senator from Kentucky. He's a Republican and we're speaking with him after his speech to the historically black Howard University here in Washington, D.C. Please stay with us.

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