There’s one thing you can say for certain about the small-government, libertarian-leaning junior senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, who (presumably) would like to be the next president of the United States.
He doesn’t shy away from a tough crowd.
Paul did it last year when he made a speech before a somewhat less than receptive crowd at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, D.C.
And he did it again Friday when he laid out his message in a 17-minute speech in Ballroom C of the Duke Energy Convention Center for the National Urban League Conference, the national civil rights organization that held its annual four-day convention last week in Cincinnati.
Well, actually, he laid his ideas out before a tiny fraction of the thousands of delegates and guests who were in town for the National Urban League Conference.
Maybe 100 of them made their way to Ballroom C early Friday morning to hear Paul. The empty seats far out-numbered the ones that were occupied.
But Paul went gamely on, because he apparently believes his message can appeal to African-American voters and other minorities.
He touted his legislation to allow persons who have been convicted of felonies to vote in federal elections under certain conditions.
“Nationwide, five million people are prevented from voting because of their criminal record,’’ Paul said. “It’s the biggest impediment to voting in our country. I want more people to vote, not less.”
That got some applause from some, but not all, of the Urban League delegates.
So too did his call for school choice and vouchers, an issue that is very popular among many African-Americans in urban areas, whose kids are often stuck in some of the worst schools in the country.
“I propose that we should allow school choice, vouchers, competition,’’ Paul said. “I want to make it where all Americans can have the option of choosing the best school for their kids.”
Paul wants to do away with mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenders.
And he has a plan he calls “economic freedom zones.” In that plan, he would drastically lower federal taxes in areas, both urban and rural, that have an unemployment rate more than one-and-a-half times the national rate.
Let the local communities keep the money instead of sending it to Washington. It could, Paul says, produce an extra $1.3 billion over 10 years for Detroit and an extra $1 billion for the poverty-stricken rural areas of Kentucky.
So will his message of “economic freedom” and “personal freedom” resound with African-American voters?
There was a time in this country when blacks who voted often voted Republican. Then came the Great Depression and a president named Franklin D. Roosevelt. And, 50 years ago, the Republican Party nominated a presidential candidate in Barry Goldwater who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
That pretty much sealed the deal for African-American voters. They have been voting overwhelmingly Democratic ever since.
In 2008, President Obama, the first African-American president, won 95 percent of the black vote. It dipped to 93 percent in 2012.
Paul is not the only GOP voice trying to reach out to black and other minorities. They understand the changing demographics of the country, especially with Hispanics now the fastest growing demographic group in the country; and realize that the Republican Party could be marginalized if it appeals only to white, middle class voters and tea party activists.
They have to find a way to broaden their base.
“Of all the potential candidates out there, Rand Paul is probably the one who transcends those boundaries,’’ said Mack Mariani, an associate professor of political science at Xavier University.
“He’s much more libertarian than the typical conservative Republican,’’ Mariani said. “Maybe he is one who can push those boundaries and bring in new voters to the Republican Party.”
The downside of what Paul is doing, Mariani said, is that many traditional conservatives in the party won’t like his message.
“Conservatives will be skeptical of felons voting and his opposition to voter ID laws,’’ Mariani said.
But, Mariani said, “Republicans have not been very good at talking to those voters. I don’t think you will see a huge influx of black voters by Paul reaching out this way, but he might get some young urban voters. The older ones – probably not.”
It is a political risk on Paul’s part, Mariani said, “because there are many African-Americans who are never going to vote Republican. But if he succeeds, it transforms the Republican Party.”
So the likely GOP presidential contender from Kentucky will keep plugging away. Even if he is sometimes speaking in a room where most of the seats are empty.