Video: Civil rights flap puts Paul in hot seat

  1. Transcript of: Civil rights flap puts Paul in hot seat

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: One of the bigger election results from the primaries this past Tuesday night was the tea party 's first big successful statewide candidate. His name is Rand Paul , and he was nominated to run for US Senate from Kentucky . He's the son of Congressman Ron Paul from Texas , a famous libertarian. And that same philosophy made headlines last night in a television interview, in the studio right alongside of us here, during last night's " Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC. We get the story tonight from NBC 's John Yang .

    Mr. RAND PAUL: We have come to take our government back.

    JOHN YANG reporting: Rand Paul 's been Kentucky 's Republican Senate nominee for less than 48 hours, but he's already ignited a political firestorm, questioning the government 's role in ending discrimination in privately owned businesses like restaurants and hotels. Last night MSNBC 's Rachel Maddow asked him about the 1960s battle to desegregate lunch counters in the South .

    RACHEL MADDOW reporting: Are you in favor of that?

    Mr. PAUL: Well, thing is, again -- well...

    MADDOW: Forcibly, because the government got involved?

    Mr. PAUL: Well, what happens is it gets in -- right, well, what it gets into is is that then 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?

    YANG: Paul repeatedly said he opposes any racial discrimination. Today he issued a statement saying he unequivocally will not support any efforts to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . Democrats tried to paint Paul and his supporters as out of the mainstream.

    Representative JAMES CLYBURN (Democratic Whip): He made himself the face and the spokesperson for the tea party movement at his victory party on Tuesday night, and I think that he made it very clear to the voters in America exactly what their movement is all about.

    YANG: The flap highlights Paul 's lack of experience in high-stakes politics. He's an eye surgeon making his first campaign for any office. It also reflects his belief in limited government and greater individual freedom.

    Mr. HOWARD FINEMAN (NBC News Political Analyst): Rand Paul 's misstep here was the misstep of a novice, but it's also the misstep of somebody with a deeply-held philosophy and passion.

    YANG: A passion that may present challenges for Republicans in November. John Yang , NBC News, Chicago.
updated 5/20/2010 6:36:07 PM ET 2010-05-20T22:36:07

In the wake of Rand Paul’s comments on MSNBC’s "Rachel Maddow Show" Wednesday night questioning provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Kentucky Republican Senate nominee said Thursday he supported the law and would not favor its repeal.

Paul also said that appearing on Maddow’s show "was a poor political decision.”

In an interview with radio talk show host Laura Ingraham, Paul implicitly acknowledged that he’d given his opponents ammunition to assail him.

It was a turnabout from Wednesday night, when Paul told Maddow, “You’re an intelligent person; I like being on your show."

In a statement released by his campaign Thursday Paul said, “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.”

Voices support for 1964 law
He added, “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.”

In his 15-minute interview with Maddow, Paul repeatedly declined or sidestepped opportunities to endorse the provisions of the 1964 law which require hotels, restaurants, and other businesses to accept all customers without discriminating on the basis of race or ethnicity.

He repeated several times that he opposes racial discrimination. “I’m not in favor of any discrimination of any form, I would never belong to any club that excluded anybody for race,” he said. At the end of the interview, Paul added, “I don’t believe that any private property (owner) should discriminate either.”

But he did not say whether he supported using federal law to enforce non-discrimination in privately owned businesses. He said “had I been around” in 1964 “I would have tried to modify that.”

He also said the debate over the civil right law’s limits on rights of private property owners “is still a valid discussion.”

He explained, “When you blur the distinction between public and private ownership, there really is a problem.” He used the hypothetical example of a gun owner who takes his firearm into a restaurant whose owner objects to having weapons on the premises.

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Paul complained Wednesday to Maddow that the question of private property owners' rights under the law was “an abstract, obscure conversation from 1964 that you bring up … You bring up something that really is not an issue,” — but this came after he'd already engaged in an extensive discussion of the topic for 15 minutes on national television.

A flashback to 2002
A Democratic blogger pointed readers to a 2002 letter from Paul to the editor of the Bowling Green Daily News in which he complained that the federal fair housing law ignores “the distinction between private and public property.”

In the letter, Paul wrote that “decisions concerning private property and associations should in a free society be unhindered. As a consequence, some associations will discriminate."

“A free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination — even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin,” he added.

He called racial bias “unenlightened and ill-informed” but said that “it is likewise unwise to forget the distinction between public (taxpayer-financed) and private entities. A society that forgets this distinction will ultimately lose the freedoms that have evolved and historically been attached to private ownership.”

The Kentucky ophthalmologist easily won Tuesday’s GOP primary, defeating Secretary of State Trey Grayson, the candidate supported by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the state's senior senator.

Paul will face Democrat Jack Conway in the November election.

Conway said in a statement Thursday that 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."

Referring to his foes, Paul told Maddow Wednesday night, “They’ll try to run on this entire issue and it’s being brought up as a political issue.”

But Paul's comments seem likely to spur fund raising for Conway and may increase Democratic turnout in the November election.

In 2008, Republican John McCain won the state with 57 percent of the vote. Exit poll interviews indicated that 11 percent of the 2008 electorate in Kentucky was black and that 90 percent of African-American voters in Kentucky cast their ballots for Democrat Barack Obama.

A reprise of Goldwater in 1964
By engaging in a prolonged debate with Maddow of the 1964 law, Paul revisited an issue that GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater contended with nearly 50 years ago.

Goldwater voted against the law, arguing that its provisions dealing with public accommodations and employment were unconstitutional. He lost the 1964 election in a landslide to Democratic President Lyndon Johnson.

Although Kentucky is a Republican-leaning state and has not elected a Democratic senator since 1992, it’s not impossible for a Democrat to win there: in 2004, Democratic Senate candidate Daniel Mongiardo came within one percentage point of defeating Sen. Jim Bunning, who is retiring this year.

Democrat Bill Clinton carried the state in the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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