Herald-Leader Political Writer
Going by conventional wisdom and modern political party tendencies, it’s hard to imagine a more unlikely setting.
But there was U.S. Sen. Rand Paul last Thursday, sitting in a leather wingback chair, a large collection of African ceremonial masks on the wall to his left, as he discussed the contributions of Malcolm X to the civil rights movement.
It was a cold, gray morning at Simmons College in Louisville’s West End. Paul had a full day of events scheduled around the commonwealth as he pushed for “Economic Freedom Zones” and attempted to shore up his support in Kentucky before possibly embarking on a run for the White House. But his morning was set aside for Rev. Kevin Cosby, a well-respected leader within Louisville’s black community, and a man who calls Paul a friend.
After the Republican Party’s shameful showing with minority groups in the 2012 election, Paul has been far from subtle about trying to take the lead in reaching out to black voters.
So he gave a speech at Howard University in April, and last week followed up with a speech to the Detroit Economic Club. The scoffs from national black leaders and the Democratic Party weren’t subtle, either.
What in the world is a man who questioned the constitutionality of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and reluctantly accepted the resignation of a staffer who once called himself the Southern Avenger doing leading the GOP’s efforts to reach black voters?
Pundits and national Democrats — and probably an overwhelming majority of black voters — have all but doubled over laughing at the sometimes clumsy efforts of the GOP’s unlikely director of minority outreach.
Cosby isn’t laughing.
The reverend started at St. Stephen Church 34 years ago with 250 people in his congregation. Today, he has more than 14,000 and is president of Simmons College.
Cosby, who was praised by Democrats and Republicans contacted for this column, said he was surprised when he saw Paul at St. Stephen three years ago for a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration. Since then, the two men have talked often.
The reverend is a registered Democrat, and he is adamant that he is not endorsing Paul politically. (Cosby said he hasn’t decided if he would vote for Paul for president in 2016.) But Cosby and a handful of other black community leaders are helping to shepherd Paul’s outreach effort.
For example, Cosby noted that Paul often talked about the Republican staple of states’ rights without realizing that many black voters view it as a loaded term.
“Anytime you start using terms like ‘states’ rights,’ that conjures up a lot of emotions for the African-American community because that’s what the Dixiecrats used,” Cosby said. “I say, ‘man, it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.’ I know he gets it.”
In an interview Monday, Paul acknowledged that he is learning that comments he makes are being dissected like never before and that his thoughts on the Civil Rights Act require a lengthy, nuanced explanation, making it easy for his critics to paint him as out of touch, or worse, a racist.
“I think you have to realize that everything you say is seen through filters,” Paul said. “Everything you do is trapped into a partisan vortex. Really some people are never going to give me credit for trying to do anything right or trying to fix anything.”
To both the media and Paul’s allies, the senator has a maddening stubborn streak, as evidenced by the way he dug in with his support of Jack Hunter, the staffer who resigned in July after past instances of Confederate sympathies came to light.
Paul said Monday that he and Hunter were late to realize the perception that came from his defense of the staffer, lamenting what he says is a partisan double-standard when it comes to forgiveness of past misdeeds.
“Everybody has forgiven Robert Byrd for saying things that frankly I find unforgivable or activities that I found unforgivable,” Paul said, referring to the late West Virginia Democratic senator who was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan. “So I think that it comes down to partisan politics.”
Was Cosby offended by that defense or Paul’s remarks on the sweeping 1964 legislation? Absolutely, he said. But he also was offended when then-Sen. Joe Biden called Barack Obama “bright and articulate and clean” and when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Obama could win because he was light-skinned and doesn’t speak with a “Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
“We have to be consistent,” Cosby said. “I don’t agree with what Biden said. I don’t agree with what Harry Reid said. We give them a pass.”
To the larger point though, Cosby said he and most black voters don’t spend any time talking about the 1964 legislation. Things they do talk about — jobs, school choice and racial inequality in the criminal justice system, specifically when it comes to mandatory minimum sentencing laws and ex-felons not being able to vote — are the same things Paul is talking about, no matter the audience.
That, Cosby said, is why he’s listening to Paul.
“I think he is a man of conviction,” Cosby said. “And whether you agree with him or disagree with him, he has his core beliefs. And some of those core beliefs are important to the black community.”
While the national media tends to limit Paul’s outreach to the speeches he gave at Howard and in Detroit, people like Marcum French, executive director of the Plymouth Community Renewal Center in Louisville, see Paul’s actions at play more than any politician they can remember.
French described Paul standing up recently at a massive fundraiser held on his behalf at a swanky Louisville country club. French was stunned, he said, when Paul, instead of using his remarks to ask for money for his Political Action Committee, asked the crowd to donate to Plymouth.
“What he’s doing is very gutsy,” French said, noting that Paul’s office has donated clothing to the center and, with his permission, run mobile office hours from there to offer constituent services to one of the poorest zip codes in the country.
French also wouldn’t say whether he would back Paul for president, and he was quick to acknowledge what appears to be political common sense: Rand Paul is not going to carry the black vote in 2016.
“I’ve heard people say he’s using you. For what?” French said. “The fact that he’s not likely to get a huge African-American voter turnout for the Republican Party in 2016 shows that what he’s doing is not a selfish act. Because he’s not going to get anything out of it in the short-run.”
Obviously, Paul has more critics than fans in his endeavor, most of whom see it as nothing more than stereotypical political pandering. State Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, is chief among them, saying there is nothing “mystical” about a man who wants to be president showing up in poor, black communities.
“There’s nothing exciting about this to me,” Neal said. “He’s never going to get the vast majority or significant amount of African-American votes because of his statements and policies. That’s not going to happen.”
Neal, who is a member of Cosby’s congregation, said Paul is using the black community to try to “soften his image” nationally and this not a matter of “something saintly or there’s an epiphany.”
“This guy is pandering,” Neal said. “Which is not uncommon for a politician to do.”
Paul is pretty candid about his reasons for going to places like Detroit, telling the audience last week that he took an interest in the city because “I’m a politician, I am a Republican and I want votes.”