Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky

Story highlights

Rand Paul wrote a column for TIME following the decision in Ferguson

He said that politicians are to blame in Ferguson and elsewhere

Individuals, he argued, are ultimately responsible for their own fate

His comments are part of his aggressive minority outreach

CNN  — 

Sen. Rand Paul is blaming politicians for the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, arguing that the criminal justice system fuels racial tension by disproportionately targeting African-Americans.

The so-called war on drugs has created a culture of violence and put police in a nearly impossible situation,” Paul said in an op-ed published for TIME.

He acknowledged that the shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer wasn’t related to drugs, but argued that outsized penalties for nonviolent drug crimes creates a “tension in some communities that too often results in tragedy.”

The comments are another attempt by Paul, a Kentucky Republican and likely 2016 presidential contender, to seize on the violence in Ferguson as an opportunity to make inroads with minorities. He’s blending his libertarian-leaning views about the war on drugs with a message that emphasizes the importance of individual responsibility.

And he’s doing this while other possible GOP presidential prospects – like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – are largely silent on the turmoil unfolding in Ferguson.

Back in August, as violence first unfolded on the streets of Ferguson, Paul made a splash with an op-ed – also in TIME – blasting the government for over-militarizing local police forces. The piece made him one of the few political voices willing to weigh in on the issue at the time.

Paul didn’t address police forces in Tuesday’s op-ed, and he also refrained from addressing the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson.

Rather, he focused his opinion piece on broader issues that cause what he frequently describes as an “undercurrent of unease” in poor communities. While he said criminal justice reform is a crucial need, he ultimately argued it’s up to individuals themselves to improve their lives.

Saying he has “no intention to scold,” Paul stressed that escaping the “poverty trap will require all of us to relearn that not only are we our brother’s keeper, we are our own keeper.”

Obama: ‘No sympathy’ for violence in Ferguson

“While a hand-up can be part of the plan, if the plan doesn’t include the self-discovery of education, work, and the self-esteem that comes with work, the cycle of poverty will continue,” he continued.

His hope, he concluded, is that a non-political leader will emerge “who motivates and inspires all of us to discover traits, ambitions, and moral codes that have slowly eroded and left us empty with despair.”

Paul’s critics, however, have consistently questioned the senator’s libertarian views that have put him in hot water in the past, such as his doubts about a provision of the Civil Rights Act involving property rights and discrimination.

He’s tried to sell his overall nontraditional ideology to wider audiences, and trumpet his efforts in doing so. In the past year, he’s spoken at the National Urban League and addressed historically black colleges. He’s also helped the GOP open up an office in Detroit, and he was there for the Kentucky GOP’s office opening in urban Louisville.

Paul visited Ferguson last month to meet with NAACP leaders, and told CNN later in the day that the GOP’s “biggest mistake” in the past few decades has been not competing for African Americans’ votes.

He made headlines last week for meeting with Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader and controversial figure who says he considers Paul a competitive threat for Democrats in 2016.

On the legislative side, Paul has made proposals in the Senate that would restore voting rights to felons with nonviolent drug convictions and would reform the criminal justice system to lower penalties for similar convictions.

Rand Paul and his Democratic buds

Paul’s minority outreach efforts have certainly earned him plenty of media attention and accolades by some in African-American communities, but others say it’s not enough.

Rep. Barbara Lee argued Paul’s attempts to court African American voters are “welcome” endeavors, but he’ll “need to do a much better job if he actually expects to win them.”

In an opinion piece Monday for The Root, the Democratic congresswoman from California harpooned Paul for saying last week in an interview that there’s been no “bigger defender of minority rights in the Congress” than himself.

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It’s a comment Paul has made repeatedly this year, and it always lands him in trouble with critics who point to sitting Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington among other key events.

But Lee, in her op-ed, described Paul’s legislative pushes involving drug sentencing reform as “low-hanging fruit” and blasted Paul for failing to “corral any significant support from his Republican colleagues.”

“Doing the bare minimum, though, doesn’t make you a hero,” she wrote. “Nor do you get much credit just for showing up.”

Sharpton, however, appears to think Paul is making inroads with African-Americans.

Following their meeting last week, he argued that Paul may not necessarily generate a lot of support among black voters, but his outreach may stop them from voting against him if he becomes the GOP nominee.

This, he told Politico, could be bad for Democratic turnout.

“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.

“I think he knows it’s unlikely someone like Al Sharpton would endorse him, but I can’t ignore him,” he added. “He’s openly dealing with issues that [politicians] including people in the Democratic Party, haven’t done.”

Complete coverage of what’s happening in Ferguson