Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is trying to make inroads for the GOP with black voters, but if black news media are any indication, he has a long way to go.
Paul, who officially announced his 2016 Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, spoke at the historically black Howard University in 2013, discussed criminal justice reform with MSNBC host Rev. Al Sharpton last November, and visited Ferguson, Mo., during the upheaval over the shooting death of Michael Brown.
Paul's efforts to join a more libertarian approach to public policy with outreach to black voters have included vocal support for reducing penalties on non-violent crimes and clearing records of juveniles convicted of crimes, which greatly impact black communities.
David A. Love, a blogger and contributor to the black-centric the Grio website, wrote on Tuesday that Paul's presidential bid "should matter to black America."
"The reformer image that Rand Paul has been projecting to the black community of late sounds good," wrote Love. "And if he manages to get traction, he could influence and help transform a party that has been hostile to black people and has won elections at their expense."
Love said, however, "the problem" with Paul is his "unhinged, unstable, not-ready-for-primetime brand of tea party extremism."
Paul has crafted a mix of policy positions that straddle the line between hands-off libertarianism and traditional conservatism. For example, he champions a limited foreign policy — a position that puts him at odds with the GOP establishment — but he also embraces restrictions on abortions, a socially conservative position.
Jonathan Capehart, a liberal columnist for the Washington Post, shared Love's left-handed praise for Paul. "Paul's focus on our nation's inner cities and criminal justice reform is refreshing," he wrote Tuesday. "Rather than ignore both those issues as Republicans are wont to do, the junior senator from Kentucky who has been speaking out about both for months now didn't ignore them today. In those words were shades of Jack Kemp, the former congressman, secretary of housing and urban development and 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee who talked openly and passionately about the needs of America's urban areas and the poor living in them."
But Capehart said Paul's pronouncement to "end unconstitutional [government] surveillance" elicited a "mini eye roll."
In November, Sharpton, an activist who led the Tawana Brawley rape hoax of the 1980s and a 1995 protest at a Jewish-owned Harlem business that ended in a multiple homicide, met with Paul to speak about justice reform. "I am in Senate Dining Room having breakfast meeting with Sen. Rand Paul," Sharpton tweeted at the time. "We don't agree on much but he is an interesting guy."
After Paul announced he's running for president, Sharpton, who is an unofficial adviser to the White House, said, "It's central to Paul's campaign, the claim that he's a different kind of Republican. … And yet on some issues, some key issues at that, Paul lines up perfectly with the Right."
Similarly, CNN's Van Jones, a former green jobs czar with the Obama administration, said Tuesday that Paul has been "the exception" to Republicans who "have a very tough branding issue when it comes to people of color."
Jones, a self-described "communist" who left his job with President Obama in 2009 amid a media firestorm over his connections with the Sept. 11 truth movement, the radical group STORM and other questionable causes, added that left-leaning voters are "going to be concerned" about Paul's views on abortion.
Since the re-election of Obama in 2012, Republicans have sought to appeal to minority voters, who largely vote for Democrats. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commissioned a minority outreach program and some Republicans support policies that would grant some legal protections to illegal immigrants living in the United States.
Paul is the second prominent Republican to declare his candidacy for president. In March, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also said is running.