The Rev. Al Sharpton says Rand Paul’s efforts to engage black voters could present a strategic challenge for Democrats: If the Republican senator runs for president, fewer African Americans may be motivated to show up and vote against him.
The civil rights activist and TV host had breakfast with the Kentucky senator last week, and the pair discussed the need for criminal justice reform before disagreeing over how to deal with the immigration system.
Democrats have traditionally done well among African American voters, especially with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket. In 2016, Democrats will “need maximum black turnout in a lot of states,” Sharpton told POLITICO.
“What I think is more dangerous for Democrats is, if a guy like Paul is out there, if he becomes the nominee, for argument’s sake, he … does not generate a turnout against him” among African Americans, Sharpton said. He added, “If he’s able to neutralize his past image on civil rights, if he becomes the candidate … and if you don’t get a huge black turnout saying ‘We’re afraid [of him],’” that could be a pitfall for Democrats.
Sharpton pointed to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to engage the black community as an example. Bloomberg “didn’t get a lot of black votes … but because he reached out, a lot of blacks were not energized to come out and vote against him,” Sharpton said.
Paul came under fire in his 2010 Senate race for equivocating over whether the Civil Rights Act should apply to private businesses (he later stressed he would have voted for the measure). But he has made engaging minority communities a priority in recent years. He has called for restoration of voting rights for some non-violent felons; visited Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer fatally shot a black teenager; worked with Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey on criminal justice reform and decried police militarization. He’s also called on the GOP to be more inclusive.
Sharpton stressed that he is not endorsing Paul, but suggested he was impressed with Paul’s efforts.
“Now that he’s [working] with Booker, going to Ferguson, having breakfast with Al Sharpton … he is beginning to demonstrate some very open, very consistent patterns of trying to broaden the framework of a potential candidacy,” Sharpton said. “I think he knows it’s unlikely someone like Al Sharpton would endorse him, but I can’t ignore him. He’s openly dealing with issues that [politicians] including people in the Democratic Party, haven’t done.”
Sharpton asked for the meeting, which was held in the Senate dining room, and said he was pleased that Paul was willing to get together in such a high-profile place. The reverend floated a possible invitation to his annual civil rights conference, and Paul did not rule out attending. The senator’s office confirmed that he is open to a possible appearance.
Sharpton added that Paul’s actions could put “a lot of pressure” even on Democrats such as Hillary Clinton — a potential 2016 frontrunner for the party — who have good records on civil rights.
“In this era of Ferguson and chokehold and the fact that we have the first black president leaving the White House, you can’t just go by record,” he said. “You gotta go by, as Janet Jackson used to say, ‘What have you done for me lately?’”