Acknowledging racial disparities in U.S. drug and sentencing laws, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is calling for the restoration of felon voting rights in state and federal laws.
The Tea Party favorite also says the consequence of those punitive measures is the chief culprit behind voter disenfranchisement in African-American communities.
"The biggest impediment to voting rights, right now, are convicted felons. One in three young black males has been convicted of a felony and they’ve lost their voting rights. I think it dwarfs all other (election-related) issues," says Paul.
Paul made the comments at a forum hosted by the Plymouth Community Renewal Center in west Louisville on Monday. It is part of the libertarian-leaning senator's continued effort to close the gap between Republicans and black voters, which began with a speech at Howard University this spring.
Among the measures Paul's office touted to those in attendance was co-sponsoring a bill with Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont to give judges more discretion in sentencing federal drug cases.
Speaking to a handful of community activists and residents, Paul outlined how he also hopes to put forward a measure that would restore a felon's voting rights at the federal level five years after their release.
"We haven't decided which crimes yet, but I think particularly for non-violent drug crimes where people made a youthful mistake I think they ought to get their rights back," he says.
In terms of black voter outreach, Paul has had mixed reviews from local African-American leaders in light of his efforts this year.
Earlier this year he spoke with students at the historically-black Simmons College in Louisville, and in August indicated a willingness to work with city officials on addressing abandoned and vacant properties in low-income neighborhoods.
Just last month, however, Paul received a barrage of criticism for saying there was "no evidence" of racial discrimination in U.S. elections while defending voter id laws.
But when asked about efforts to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the Plymouth event, Paul indicated he is supportive of federal oversight to combat discrimination.
"As far as the federal Voting Rights Act, I am in favor of the federal government being involved if states are shown to discriminate against people based on race. I think there still is a need for that," says Paul. "And that part of the Voting Rights Act, I believed was upheld (and) not overturned."
It is all part of the mixed messages that some attendees say Paul gives them in regards to race in America.
Paul has made controversial comments about civil rights in the past, and the hiring of a legislative aide who once belonged to a neo-Confederate group put the senator under more scrutiny. But Paul is considered a top contender for president in 2016, which means it is imperative he end those perceptions soon.
"I see a genuine interest from Sen. Paul," says Carol Bottoms, a retired educator who attended the forum. "At this point forward, he's come out into the community and can be more aware of what is actually going on. It's one thing to be in Washington and read the papers, this should make him think before he votes."
"But we have to remember that staff person was hired by the senator or at least his designees. We need to take a good look at those type of things. At this point I'm open and I'm willing to listen to all candidates and hopefully vote for the one who can best represent our community," she says.
Others were encouraged that Paul showed a willingness to lobby GOP lawmakers to support restoration of voting rights for ex-convicts at the state level. The legislation passed in the Democratic-controlled state House, but stalled in the Republican-dominated state Senate and never received a vote.
"I'm going to look at House Bill 70 and I'm going to talk with leadership in the (state) Senate and see what their objection to it is. And one of the compromises I threw out is may be instead of an immediate restoration that you have to wait a couple of years with no convictions," says Paul.
Longtime supporters of the measure to restore felon voting rights in the General Assembly are encouraged by the vocal support, and hope to see Paul lobby his Republican brethren directly.
"I welcome him aboard. I don't want to question his sincerity. If Rand Paul is born-again all of a sudden, we welcome that," says Democratic state Rep. Darryl Owens of Louisville, who is a co-sponsor of the state bill. "Everybody can change."