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Rand Paul pitches his ideas to Urban League delegates

U.S. Senate office

Rand Paul, Kentucky’s junior senator and a likely contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, pitched his ideas of economic and personal freedom to a polite but small crowd this morning at the National Urban League Conference.

Paul’s early morning speech, which lasted about 17 minutes, was seen as part of his continuing effort to reach out to minority voters, particularly African-Americans, in order to broaden the GOP voter base.

But only a little more than 100 people showed up for Paul’s speech – a small fraction of the crowd that greeted Vice President Joe Biden Thursday morning at the Duke Energy Convention Center.

Paul did receive applause a few times during his speech, such as when he talked about trying to lessen the numbers of young African-Americans who end up in prison.

“Three out of every four people in prison in this country are persons of color,’’ the first-term Kentucky senator said. “I won’t sit idly by and watch our criminal justice system continue to consume, confine and define our young men. I say we take a stand and fight for justice now.”

He did not talk to the Urban League delegate about two issues that the vast majority of the members of the civil rights organization support – raising the federal minimum wage and Obamacare. Paul opposes both.

In a speech laced with references to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Paul did raise an issue that got some applause from the audience – his introduction of a bill in the U.S. Senate that would restore the federal voting rights of felons under certain conditions.

“Nationwide, five million people are prevented from voting because of their criminal record,’’ Paul said. “It’s the biggest impediment to voting in our country. I want more people to vote, not less.”

Paul, who was elected by Kentuckians to the Senate in 2010 with much support from the tea party movement, floated another idea that he has been talking about in speeches around the country – the creation of “economic freedom zones.”

Paul defines “economic freedom zones” as places where the poverty rate and unemployment are well above the national average, using the city of Detroit and the Appalachian region of his home state as examples.

Under Paul’s plan, billions sent to the federal government in tax dollars would instead go directly to these communities.

“In the past, what we do is the government takes the money from the people sends it to Washington, and then gives it back,’’ Paul said.

“But they have choose who to give it too,’’ the senator said. “So sometimes the money is given to small businesses that fail because often the wrong people are the ones who get the money.”

Under his plan, Paul said, local communities could make their own decisions about how the tax dollars are spent. He said that it would mean an extra $1.3 billion for Detroit over 10 years; and $1 billion for the Appalachian region of Kentucky over the same period.

Democrats in Congress have questioned how Paul’s “economic freedom zone” plan would be paid for.

The four-day National Urban League annual conference wraps up Saturday. It has brought about 8,500 delegates and guests to the city, with an estimated economic impact on the region of $2 million.