Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul conceded he had a "daunting task" today when he set out to woo black students at Howard University, and proceeded to tell them that the Republican Party was the party of the civil rights movement.
He won few converts, but he won some respect.
"How did the party that elected the first black U.S. senator, the party that elected the first 20 African American congressmen become a party that now loses 95 percent of the black vote?" Paul asked the Howard students. "How did the Republican Party, the party of the Great Emancipator, lose the trust and faith of an entire race? From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, for a century, most black Americans voted Republican. How did we lose that vote?"
Paul said the story of the "modern civil rights era" is the "history of the Republican Party," launching into the history of the Republican Party and African-Americans, something specifically suggested in last month's Republican National Committee "autopsy" report.
Paul is widely believed to be eying a presidential run in 2016. It's something outreach like the speech at Howard, as well as his embrace of comprehensive immigration reform, only fuels the speculation. He acknowledged that many believe "Republicans are somehow inherently insensitive to minority rights" and he wants to change that.
The last Republican to speak at the school, according to the university, was former RNC chairman Michael Steele in 2009 and before that in 2004 then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist received an honorary degree. In 1994, Colin Powell gave Howard University's commencement address. In 2000 George W. Bush declined the invitation to speak and Al Gore spoke instead.
Although the crowd was mostly respectful with almost everyone thanking Paul for coming during the question and answer portion, they were clearly resistant to Paul's message. Toward the beginning of his remarks, a protester tried to unfurl a banner that read "Howard University Doesn't Support White Supremacy" and an awkward moment ensued during the question and answer portion when the senator seemed to be giving a history lesson to the students. He asked the group if they knew that the founders of the NAACP were Republicans. The crowd seemed taken aback with one student even yelling, "We know our history."
Paul said he didn't "mean to be insulting," adding "I don't know what you know" and "I'm trying to find out."
He said he still didn't think the "general public" knew that fact, and it was up to the GOP to make that argument noting it is an "uphill battle for me to try and convince you that we have changed," but said that's what he is "trying to do."
Paul acknowledged his own history with the Civil Rights Act saying, by saying, "Here I am, a guy who once presumed to discuss a section of the Civil Rights Act." He appeared to be referring to comments he made when he was running for Senate in 2010. During that campaign he did at least two interviews where he said he was against discrimination, but suggested that private businesses should not be forced to abide by the Civil Rights Act. He clarified afterwards that he would not want the act repealed, but he was heavily criticized at the time and the issue would definitely come up again if he were to run in 2016.
Paul emphasized today that "No Republican questions or disputes civil rights," adding "I have never wavered in my support for civil rights or the civil rights act."
Paul continued his push to broaden his party telling the audience that the difference between the two parties is "Democrats promise equalizing outcomes through unlimited federal assistance," while his party offers "something that seemed less tangible, the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets."
"The Democrat promise is tangible and puts food on the table, but too often doesn't lead to jobs or meaningful success," Paul said. He said the country's current economic troubles including gas prices and the national debt is disproportionately hurting minorities and the poor.
Mitt Romney only received 6 percent of the African-American vote, but he too tried to reach out to black voters, although unsuccessfully. During the 2012 campaign he spoke at the NAACP convention, but he was booed when he said he wanted to repeal President Obama's health care law.
Paul got a better reception when he spoke about school choice and repealing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
He said "there are countless examples of the benefits of school choice" where children have been able to turn "their lives completely around."
"Maybe it's about time we all reassess blind allegiance to ideas that are failing our children," Paul said. "Republicans are often miscast as uncaring or condemning of kids who make bad choices. I, for one, plan to change that."
He noted his work on the issue of drug sentences, saying "We should not take away anyone's future over one mistake."
Paul told a "tale of two young men" from different economic and racial background who both used drugs, before revealing that the story was about former president George W. Bush and President Obama.
"Barack Obama and George Bush were lucky," Paul said, adding that if either of them had been arrested "neither one of them would have been employable, much less electable."
He ended his address with a pitch saying he hopes some in the audience "will be open to the Republican message."
Talking to students after the event revealed audience members pleased that he came to Howard, but reflected the steep climb Rand Paul and the GOP has with African Americans and other minority voters.
Howard student John Crawford said Paul's explanation of why black voters historically should be Republicans was "some revisionist history going on," but he said he does think he will be able to woo some voters "just because he had the courage and integrity to come here."
"I just hope the next school or conference he goes to he doesn't pull a Mitt Romney (and say), 'If you want free stuff or if you want makers or takers vote for Democrats,' because I feel like that's What Mitt Romney did ..and I hope Rand Paul doesn't pull that because all of the good will Rand Paul got from coming here will be gone."
Crawford is referring to Romney's "47 percent" video where he was secretly recorded at a private fundraiser saying 47 percent of Americans are "dependent on the government," as well as Romney blaming his loss on "gifts" President Obama and Democrats gave to minority voters on a conference call after the election.
Kwanda Trice, a Howard graduate student from Paul's native Kentucky, asked a question during the event about drug sentences and state hemp laws. She said although she didn't get a full answer to her question she said she has "to give him props" for coming to Howard.
"This was a hard crowd, but he decided to come here and basically bridge the gap between African Americans and the Republican Party and that says a lot," Trice said. "To come here to Howard University where students are progressive, they are educated, they know the issues and they know the policies back and forth and to be able to actually face them head on I have to commend him for that."
Trice added, "Going forward we will see what his actions are."