Sen. Rand Paul lays out criminal justice, education policies during National Urban League speech

CINCINNATI -- Another political heavyweight took the stage at the National Urban League conference in order to tell minority voters why their party can best represent them in Washington, D.C.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul viewed his speech at the Duke Energy Center in downtown Cincinnati as a chance to attract new votes and those casting them to the Republican Party.

Paul blended his message of libertarian-fueled privacy policies with civil rights-inspired criminal justice reforms during his speech, which his camp characterized as a “major" chance to lay out his agenda.

“Whether you are a minority because of color of your skin or by virtue of your political or religious persuasion, it is imperative that we restrain the power of the majority,” he said during day three of the four-day event. “Dr. King’s 'I have a Dream’ speech inspired the world but it also prompted the FBI to tap his phone illegally and spy on tens of thousands of Americans.”

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Paul hasn’t officially said he’ll be making a run for the White House but new polls suggest he would be a front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2016.

As such, the senator and other members of his party have attempted to attract more minority voters, particularly African-Americans. 

Paul's recent effort to court minority voters has included introduced multiple bills to help change the nation’s drug and sentencing laws, which he said often unfairly affect minorities.

“Anyone who thinks race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice is just not paying close attention,” Paul said.

That injustice, Paul said Friday, has affected voting rights. He said 5 million people nationwide are prevented from voting because they have a criminal record, which is why he has pushed for state and federal legislation that would restore the voting rights of some convicted felons. 

But Paul does support various state laws that have popped up across the country requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls, laws that have been condemned by civil rights groups -- including the National Urban League -- as disenfranchising some black voters who don’t have an ID and can’t get one.

Vice President Joe Biden criticized many of those same positions Thursday during his speech to more than 8,000 National Urban League delegates.

In addition to attacking Paul's party for what he sees as an institutionalized movement to suppress minority voting, Biden  touched on various topics during his half-hour talk. Subject matters ranged from the state of the national economy to the need for infrastructure and transportation upgrades.

He also spoke of a national push to improve training as a way to lure more manufacturing jobs to cities in the United States.

But while the conference's theme is "One Nation Underemployed," much of the talk the past two days has to do with voting.

Marc Morial, the National Urban League’s president and CEO, said he spent about an hour with Paul on Friday, urging him to speak out against voter ID laws.

“We are going to continue to push him… that voter ID laws are not needed, not necessary and to some extent are a solution in search of a problem,” Morial said. 

Morial said he thought Paul’s speech was “well received.” But he said ultimately Paul’s credibility with minority voters will depend on whether Paul continues to consistently push for reforms.

“He’s working to build credibility. I think it takes time to build trust,” he said. “We don’t favor drive by politics. I want to see consistency.

Other African-Americans political leaders have been more condemning of Paul for what they see as  "political opportunism."

Some of those critics is Georgia Davis Powers, Kentucky’s first black state Senator and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore and the secretary of the Democratic National Committee.

"While I applaud anyone's efforts to reach out to the black community and share ideas that would improve our families' lives, Paul doesn't understand a very important piece of the puzzle: earning our trust," wrote Rawlings-Blake in a statement after Paul's speech. 

"For Paul to claim to stand up for our values while opposing policy after policy that advances our community is not the way to do this."
 
But Paul stressed the bipartisan nature of his reforms in his speech to the National Urban League.

“My hope is that each of you will work with me to find solutions that aren’t hung up in partisan politics and together we might rise above a dysfunctional Congress and do what’s right for the country,” he said.

The National Urban League conference concludes Saturday with a gala awards ceremony and party. Actor Forest Whitaker will take part in the event.

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