Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) aggressive outreach to the African-American community over the last several months is dividing African-American leaders, as some are excited that a prominent conservative Republican is embracing their causes, while others argue that working with the Kentucky senator and a likely 2016 presidential candidate is a mistake.
Paul, openly acknowledging the Republican Party's longtime struggles with African-American voters, is giving speeches at African-American colleges and meeting with key African-American pastors and leaders across the country. He is also taking stances, such as urging the restoration of voting rights for convicted felons and reducing the use of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, that are unusual for a Republican.
"It's extremely significant and I think quite encouraging for Senator Paul to not just raise these issues but also to be such a passionate advocate," said Jotaka Eaddy, a senior director at the NAACP. She added, "It's always positive when you have unexpected voices that are advocating around these principles."
But Gerald Neal, one of Kentucky's two African-American state senators, says that Paul is using this black outreach to cast himself as a different kind of Republican in preparation for his near-certain presidential run, while doing little to actually change policy. Paul is also a strong critic of President Obama, who remains deeply popular among blacks.
African-Americans who work with Paul "give an unnecessary and unwarranted pass to an individual whose actions are antithetical to the interests of the black community," Neal said in an interview. "He is using you to his benefit."
Since Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election, Paul, like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other potential GOP presidential candidates, has been making every possible move to prepare for a campaign, meeting with key activists and making visits to early primary states.
But Paul, unlike the other 2016 Republican hopefuls, is constantly harping on how the GOP must make more inroads not just with Hispanic voters, who both parties hotly contest each election cycle, but also African-Americans, a bloc Romney effectively conceded in 2012. Obama won more than 90 percent of the black vote in both 2008 and 2012.
Paul aides say his recent moves are aimed at both helping the Republican Party politically and also representing his true policy views.
"What's he's doing is from the heart," said Brian Darling, Paul's communications director.
African Americans at first panned Paul's outreach, after the senator was sharply criticized by students at Howard University last spring when he visited the school and gave a speech the students felt was talking down to them.
But he has drawn praise since then. Kentucky is one of two states that permanently bar convicted felons from voting, a policy that disproportionately affects African Americans. Paul impressed civil rights advocates not only by urging the state to change that law but by testifying at a hearing in Kentucky's state legislature to draw attention to the issue, a highly unusual move for a sitting U.S. senator.
Attorney General Eric Holder, in a recent speech, described Paul as a "leader" on the issue of restoring voting rights for felons.
Officials at the Sentencing Project, a group that works on reducing racial disparities in prison terms, say Paul's staff has reached out to them for information to buttress his speeches on criminal justice reform.
And Kevin Cosby, pastor of a large African-American church in Louisville, told Politico that Paul is willing to take advice on how to communicate better his conservative ideas to African-American audiences. The pastor, for example, has urged Paul avoid the phrase "states rights," which carries connotations of segregation-era policies for many blacks.
In a coup for Paul, Lorraine Miller, the interim president of the NAACP, said earlier this year the group would consider having the Kentucky senator as one of the keynote speakers at its annual conference.
But that potential invitation has drawn controversy. Other African-American associate the senator with his father Ron, whose political operation produced a series of racially-charged newsletters, and Rand Paul's controversial comments in 2010, when he suggested that he disagreed with a plank of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
They are not eager to hear Paul speak at the convention of one of America's foremost civil rights organizations, worried the senator will highlight that appearance if he runs for president.
"I would not invite him, because he will use that in his campaign, he will get an applause line," said Joe Madison, a former NAACP board member and civil rights leader who now hosts a radio show on SiriusXM. He added of Paul, "He's one vote and he's not going to persuade the Tea Party or the Republicans. It will just be an appearance. It won't have any impact on the party."
Paul's advocacy, as Madison noted, has had limited impact on the Republican Party so far. The provision in the Kentucky state legislature to allow convicted felons to vote did not pass. Changes in drug sentencing policy so far have not been approved in Congress, leaving the Obama administration to use its executive authority to urge prosecutors to avoid triggering mandatory minimums for drug crimes.
"I am a little reluctant to categorize these efforts as a step forward," said Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the leading African-Ameerican Democrat in the House. "The first time I saw Rand Paul on the national stage, he was saying things I found insulting."
The doubts about Paul from some African Americans were reinforced this week. He appeared to condemn laws that mandate presenting a photo ID to vote, telling the New York Times in an interview that was published last week that "it's wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it's offending people."
But the senator has since said his comments, which were sharply criticized by some conservative activists, were misconstrued. He is not opposed to voter ID laws, but simply thinks the GOP is making a political mistake in highlighting them.
Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, says civil rights advocates should opt for a middle ground with Paul. Henderson's group invited the senator to speak at an event in February that the Leadership Conference sponsored on criminal justice reform. At the same time, Henderson is pushing Paul to break with his party on another issue, a provision now stalled in Congress that would reinstate some parts of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down last year by the Supreme Court.
"We welcome his comments," said Henderson. But he added, "there's a question of whether his statements have genuine impact."