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Paul tries to defuse controversy on discrimination

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul arrives at his campaign headquarters after winning his party's primary election in Bowling Green, Ky., Wednesday, May 19, 2010. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul arrives at his campaign headquarters after winning his party's primary election in Bowling Green, Ky., Wednesday, May 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)
By David Espo
AP Special Correspondent / May 21, 2010

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WASHINGTON—A tea party conservative on a national stage, Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul of Kentucky labored Thursday to explain remarks suggesting businesses be allowed to deny service to blacks without fear of federal interference, declaring, "I abhor racial discrimination."

In a written statement, Paul said, "I believe we should work to end all racism in American society and staunchly defend the inherent rights of every person."

Paul told CNN he would have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a statement he declined to make one day earlier.

On Wednesday, Paul expressed support for the act's provisions banning discrimination in public facilities, but he had misgivings about extending the same requirement to private businesses -- then or now.

"Do you think that a private business has the right to say we don't serve black people?" he was asked by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Wednesday.

"Yes. I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form," Paul said at the beginning of a lengthy answer in which he likened the question to one about limiting freedom of speech for racists. "I don't want to be associated with those people, but I also don't want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that's one of the things freedom requires."

The issue arose little more than 24 hours after the political novice swept to a landslide Republican primary victory, defeating a rival recruited by Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell and others who feared Paul's brand of conservatism might make him unelectable in the fall. The seat is currently held by retiring Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, and the party can ill afford to lose it if it is to seriously challenge Democratic control in the fall.

Paul, 47 and an eye surgeon, is making his first run for public office, and his emergence as a favorite of tea party activists has been one of the most striking developments of the early months of the midterm election campaign. In an appearance on primary night, he credited their support with powering him to his victory, and the first opinion poll since then shows him with a commanding lead over his Democratic rival, Jack Conway.

Conway, the Kentucky attorney general, criticized his rival's comments on race, saying Paul has a "narrow political philosophy that has dangerous consequences for working families, veterans, students, the disabled and those without a voice in the halls of power."

Paul blamed the 24-hour news cycle for the controversy, a point his father, Rep. Ron Paul, emphasized.

In a sometimes testy exchange with reporters in the Capitol, he said liberals were treating his son unfairly and reporters were hoping to stop his political momentum with a "gotcha" based on out-of-context remarks.

"Making something out of nothing is just not fair," he said.

Paul's principal campaign pledge, posted on his website, is to "fight to balance the budget and dramatically reduce spending, before further interest on our debt requires government to reach deeper into our pockets and into our children's piggy bank."

In addition, he says frequently that the federal government is far too intrusive, and that many issues are best handled at the state or local level.

In an NPR interview on Wednesday, he was asked about federal regulation of mining and oil drilling industries, both of which have come under intense scrutiny since the explosion of a platform rig in the Gulf of Mexico unleashed a massive oil spill.

"I think that most manufacturing and mining should be under the purview of state authorities," he responded.

Given the ease with which Paul won the primary, coupled with the concern McConnell and others expressed about his ability to win statewide, it is not clear what the impact of the controversial stands and comments may be on the fall campaign.

Only about 7 percent of Kentucky's population is black, and successful Democratic politicians in the state tend to be conservative, opposing gun control and abortion rights, for example.

Speaking privately, Republican strategists say that however troublesome Paul's comments are to some, his supporters could view them as fresh motivation for voting him into Congress. On the other hand, they say, other voters who routinely support GOP candidates could be repelled by his views, and either stay home on Election Day or support Conway instead.

Republicans have scheduled a unity breakfast for Saturday, to be attended by Paul, his vanquished primary rival, Trey Grayson, McConnell and others.

But it is not clear whether Paul will agree to accept offers to mesh his antiestablishment campaign with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the entity charged with maximizing the party's gains in the fall.

In the same NPR interview on Wednesday, Paul was asked whether the civil rights law and a second measure that protects the rights of the handicapped went too far.

"Right. I think a lot of things could be handled locally," he said.

As an example, he added, "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."

Both broadcast interviews on Wednesday referred to a session Paul had with the Louisville (Ky.) Courier Journal last month, when he was asked whether he would have supported parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that banned racial segregation at private businesses.

"I think it's a bad business to ever exclude anyone from your restaurant. But at the same time, I do believe in private ownership," he said.

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Associated Press writers Janet Blake and Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Ky., and Christine Simmons in Washington contributed to this report.

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