Rand Paul Argues GOP Case to Skeptical Students at Historically Black College

WASHINGTON – In a speech at Howard University today that touched on education, federal prison sentences, and economics, Sen. Ran Paul (R-Ky.) pitched himself and the GOP to African-American youth, giving a history lesson to students about minority rights and the Republican Party.

Paul became the first elected Republican office holder to speak on Howard University’s campus in recent years. The last Republican leader to speak at the university was former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele in 2004, and before that, Colin Powell in 1994.

Paul delivered his speech to a full auditorium at Howard University’s School of Business. The Kentucky Republican presented his message of freedom and economic opportunity, and shared with the audience, mainly composed of students and faculty, the importance that minority rights has held in the Republican Party throughout the nation’s history.

The senator tried to lighten the mood at the beginning of his speech by saying that he would call his trip a success if the university’s newspaper printed that “a Republican came to Howard but he came in peace.”

Paul highlighted the history of the GOP’s involvement in the civil rights movement, mentioning his party’s role in championing African-American rights.

“The story of emancipation, voting rights and citizenship, from Frederick Douglass until the modern civil rights era, is in fact the history of the Republican Party,” said Paul.

The Republican Party has always championed individual freedom, resulting in a majority of African-Americans voting Republican from the Civil War to the civil rights movement. But at one point, according to Paul, the Republican Party lost the black vote after African-Americans languished behind white Americans in every measure of economic success.

“The Democrats promised equalizing outcomes through unlimited federal assistance while Republicans offered something that seemed less tangible – the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets,” said Paul.

Paul cleverly emphasized his recent efforts to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which often result in long prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

“I am working with Democratic senators to make sure that kids who make bad decisions such as nonviolent possession of drugs are not imprisoned for lengthy sentences,” said Paul.

Speaking about his bill aiming to reduce mandatory sentence laws, Paul said he does not want laws that disproportionately affect young people and, in particular, the black community.

“In every neighborhood, white, black or brown, there are kids who are not succeeding because they messed up. They had kids before they were married, or before they were old enough to support them, or they got hooked on drugs, or they simply left school,” said Paul. “Republicans are often miscast as uncaring or condemning of kids who make bad choices.  I, for one, plan to change that.”

Paul presented his ideas by telling the audience that while Democrats promise to equalize outcomes through unlimited government assistance, Republicans promise “free markets, low taxes, and less regulation” that will create more jobs.

“I take to heart the words of Toni Morrison of Howard University, who wrote: ‘If there is a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,’” said Paul.

“What I am about is a philosophy that leaves you to fill in the blanks,” he continued. “I come to Howard today, not to preach, or prescribe some special formula for you but to say I want a government that leaves you alone, that encourages you to write the book that becomes your unique future.”

Overall, it seemed that students were not receptive to the senator’s message of giving the GOP a chance.

“All his examples were from decades ago,” said Bryon Jenkins, a political science major from North Carolina. “I wasn’t really moved by his speech.”

Some students were more skeptical about the senator’s visit.

Toward the beginning of Paul’s remarks, a student stood in front of the stage holding a banner that read “Howard University Doesn’t Support White Supremacy.” The protester was quickly escorted out of the auditorium.

During the question-and-answer session, Paul had to defend his obstruction to a bill that would have granted the District of Columbia local autonomy over its own budget without congressional oversight.

He also defended Republicans against charges of voter suppression in connection with recent efforts by some states to pass voter ID laws. Democrats have said Republicans are targeting minority and poor voters -- who typically vote for Democrats and who are less likely to possess an ID.

"I think if you liken using a driver's license to a literacy test you demean the horror of what happened in the ‘40s and ‘50s. It was horrific. No one is in favor of that," Paul said. "But showing your driver's license to have an honest election is not unreasonable."

When a student said that he wants a government ready to help him, not a government that will leave him alone, Paul gave a response summarizing his philosophy.

“When I say that I believe in a government that leaves you alone, that doesn’t mean no government. One of the things I often say is not that I believe in no government, it’s just that I believe in a government that spends what comes in,” Paul said. “I think 'leave me alone' is a good mantra for government, because government has to be involved in certain things, but there are many things we can leave government out of.”

Paul’s address at the historically black university is part of an effort to reach to youth and minority voters by Republican leaders. A recent report of the 2012 election by the Republican National Committee recommended that educating students on conservative ideas would help the GOP rebrand itself and attract minorities to help win future elections.

Paul won some respect from the students and perhaps a few converts.

Chris Kirkpatrick, a sophomore finance major, said Paul’s speech at Howard opened him to consider voting for the senator in the 2016 presidential election.

“I’m a Democrat; just the fact that [Sen. Paul] came to Howard has made me consider being more open to what the Republicans have to say,” said Kirpatrick.