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Rand Paul In Civil Rights Bill Firestorm

May 20, 2010

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The overwhelming victory by ophthalmologist Rand Paul in Tuesday's Republican Senate primary in Kentucky obscures one key fact:  that supporters of Paul and defeated opponent Trey Grayson, the secretary of state, don't like each other.

But right now, Paul seems to have other, more pressing problems.  He has gotten himself in a growing controversy over his views about the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

A month ago, in an interview with the editorial board of the Courier-Journal, he gave a conflicting answer on whether he would have voted for the bill, saying he is "all in favor" of ending discrimination in public domains, but he doesn't like the idea of telling private business owners what they should or should not do.  And yesterday, in an interview with NPR's Robert Siegel, host of "All Things Considered," Paul said once again he was "opposed to institutional racism."  But when it came to the civil rights bill, as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act, he said, "I think a lot of things could be handled locally."  Here's an excerpt:

SIEGEL: Do you think the '64 Civil Rights Act or the ADA, for that matter, were just overreaches and that business shouldn't be bothered by people with the basis in law to sue them for redress?

PAUL: Right. I think a lot of things could be handled locally. For example, I think that we should try to do everything we can to allow for people with disabilities and handicaps. You know, we do it in our office with wheelchair ramps and things like that. I think if you have a two-story office and you hire someone who's handicapped, it might be reasonable to let him have an office on the first floor rather than the government saying you have to have a $100,000 elevator. And I think when you get to the solutions like that, the more local the better, and the more common sense the decisions are, rather than having a federal government make those decisions.

He expanded on those views in a later interview on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show:

MADDOW: How about desegregating lunch counters?

PAUL: Well, what it gets into then is if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says, "Well, no, we don't want to have guns in here"; the bar says, "We don't want to have guns in here because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each other." Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant? These are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion.

And a firestorm has resulted.  Democrats, in Kentucky and nationally, have been having a field day with it.

His Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Jack Conway, released a statement saying that Paul "is promoting a narrow and rigid ideology and has repeatedly rejected a fundamental provision of the Civil Rights Act. He is focused on the Tea Party whereas I am running to be a senator for all the people of Kentucky, who are really hurting right now.  No matter how he tries to spin to the contrary, the fact is that Paul's ideology has dangerous consequences for working families, veterans, students, the disabled, and those without a voice in the halls of power."

Newsweek's Howard Fineman weighed in as well, writing that if Paul "doesn't immediately apologize for holding his victory rally at a private club—and doesn't abandon his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act—then he will not only pollute the Tea Party, he will severely damage the GOP's chances of winning control of either the House or Senate this fall."

And the Washington Post's Ezra Klein blogged, "I take Paul at his word that he's not a racist. What he is, however, is an ideological extremist."

A Rasmussen Reports poll released this morning showed Paul with 59 percent of the vote, to Conway's 34 percent.  The analysis cites the "momentum of his big Republican primary win on Tuesday."

"Momentum" is not the word I would associate with Rand Paul right now.

UPDATE: Paul released this statement Thursday afternoon:

I believe we should work to end all racism in American society and staunchly defend the inherent rights of every person.  I have clearly stated in prior interviews that I abhor racial discrimination and would have worked to end segregation.  Even though this matter was settled when I was 2, and no serious people are seeking to revisit it except to score cheap political points, I unequivocally state that I will not support any efforts to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Let me be clear: I support the Civil Rights Act because I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws.

As I have said in previous statements, sections of the Civil Rights Act were debated on Constitutional grounds when the legislation was passed. Those issues have been settled by federal courts in the intervening years.

My opponent's statement on MSNBC Wednesday that I favor repeal of the Civil Rights Act was irresponsible and knowingly false. I hope he will correct the record and retract his claims.

The issue of civil rights is one with a tortured history in this country. We have made great strides, but there is still work to be done to ensure the great promise of Liberty is granted to all Americans.

This much is clear:  The federal government has far overreached in its power grabs.  Just look at the recent national healthcare schemes, which my opponent supports.   The federal government, for the first time ever, is mandating that individuals purchase a product.   The federal government is out of control, and those who love liberty and value individual and state's rights must stand up to it.

These attacks prove one thing for certain:  the liberal establishment is desperate to keep leaders like me out of office, and we are sure to hear more wild, dishonest smears during this campaign.

Back to Rand's problems with his fellow Bluegrass State Republicans.  At first blush, you would think that the GOP is feeling good about November.  Its Senate nominee won an overwhelming victory in Tuesday's primary.

But there are tensions, not only between Paul and Grayson but between Paul and Grayson's chief sponsor, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and between McConnell and the retiring senator whose seat Rand is seeking, Jim Bunning.

Further exacerbating the situation was the primary night report that said Grayson tried to phone his opponent to concede but that Paul wouldn't take the call.  There are varying descriptions for what actually happened, which has taken a life of its own on the Internets.

This apparent tension is one of the reasons McConnell has called for a "unity rally" Saturday in Frankfort.  Grayson, who became the choice of the party establishment following Bunning's withdrawal, said after his defeat, "We'll be standing side by side on Saturday."

Kentucky is a majority Democratic state that nonetheless hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1992.  But there were GOP divisions well before Paul even entered the race.  The relationship between Bunning, who struggled to win his two Senate campaigns, and McConnell has been tense, if not hostile, as the latter determined that Bunning was too politically weak to win another term.  When Bunning grudgingly announced his retirement last year, he did so with a blast at McConnell, accusing him of drying up his campaign contributions.  But his low poll numbers were Bunning's fault.

So when McConnell immediately embraced Grayson as the next senator, Bunning decided to throw his lot with Paul.

Bunning was not alone.  Paul, who became an early favorite of Tea Party activists, also won the endorsement of Sarah Palin and, perhaps more significant, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who has shown no hesitance in opposing McConnell when it comes to the ideological purity of the GOP.

While the Republicans, which nominated their Senate candidate in a landslide, decided they needed to hold a unity rally, the Democrats — who chose Conway over Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo in a one-point squeaker — appear confident that the party will unite behind the nominee.  But, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal's Joseph Gerth, "That's not a sure thing at this point":

Mongiardo still hasn't pledged to work on Conway's behalf. And until he does, that could freeze large numbers of Democratic voters who are faithful to Mongiardo.

The closeness of the race gave Mongiardo the right to request a recanvass of the results, but on Wednesday he decided against doing so.

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