By the time Sen. Rand Paul took the stage Tuesday at his presidential announcement rally, he was the first white man to address the audience at the event. Prior to his speech, a diverse group of speakers took turns introducing the Kentucky Republican.
One of those was Jerry Stephenson of Louisville, an African-American pastor who thunderously endorsed Paul in part because of the senator’s outreach to people who don’t traditionally vote for the GOP.
Stephenson, firing up the crowd, praised the senator for traveling to Democratic strongholds such as inner-city Detroit and Chicago, where Paul promoted policies that favor school choice and ideas to reform the criminal justice system.
“He goes everywhere,” Stephenson cheered. “It doesn’t matter what color you are, Rand Paul will be there.”
Stephenson’s appearance made for good optics for Paul’s campaign rollout, though he quickly found himself getting negative attention for raising questions about President Barack Obama’s religion.
So who is this pastor from Louisville?
Stephenson, 66, has been the senior minister at Midwest Church of Christ since 1985 and pastor since 1997. He gained big applause when he proclaimed Tuesday that he was previously a lifelong Democrat who became an independent in 2012: “I am telling every independent it’s time for you to run out here and run with Sen. Rand Paul.”
Paul has received a lot of press coverage for trying to court African-American voters, part of his strategy to broaden the GOP base and be seen as viable in a general election.
He was one of the few national politicians to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, after a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager, and he was the only elected Republican official to speak at the 2014 National Urban League conference. He’s also made multiple visits to historically black colleges and universities.
Former Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, an African-American Republican, also spoke at Paul’s rally and will travel with the senator to South Carolina for other campaign events.
Ever since Paul raised questions about provisions in the Civil Rights Act in 2010, however, he’s faced scrutiny from those on the left, and Democrats are quick to bring up Paul’s controversial comments whenever he tries to make inroads with minority groups.
“This is a classic example of a GOP presidential candidate thinking he can talk his way into our communities while turning his back on us when it comes to his policy prescriptions,” said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz in a statement Tuesday. “Not only is Rand Paul not going to make the GOP’s tent any bigger, the tent actually collapses under the weight of his harmful policies.”
Stephenson first met Paul before Paul started running for the Senate in 2010, according to the pastor. An ophthalmologist at the time, Paul wanted to get involved in Stephenson’s after-school program run by by his church to help low-income children.
When Paul started his campaign for Senate, Stephenson was featured in a Guardian article for being a black pastor that embraced the tea party movement and supported Paul.
Stephenson said he didn’t officially drop his affiliation with the Democratic Party until 2012, when President Obama endorsed same-sex marriage. “He really wasn’t principled enough for me,” he told CNN on Tuesday.
In comments to BuzzFeed, Stephenson questioned Obama’s Christian faith, pointing to the religious freedom debate that dominated the national dialogue in the past two weeks.
“In five years we’ll find out what [Obama’s] real religion is,” Stephenson said, adding that Obama will “evolve” again when he’s out of office. He declined to be more specific.
Stephenson told CNN he also feels disenfranchised by the Democratic Party on education, wondering why they’re not as supportive as Republicans of charter schools.
Stephenson said doesn’t agree with all of Paul’s policies, particularly when it comes to foreign affairs, saying he wants to see a more robust response to the killing of minority Christians in the Middle East.
“I don’t know that I’ve gotten through to him on that yet, but I’m working on it,” he said.
He also noted that Paul is going to have “a hard time coming into the African-American community.”
“But you know what, he’s crazy enough to go in there and take the tough questions, take the smears of those traditional black Democrat leaders,” he said. “He’s not afraid, and I’m not afraid to be seen with him, either.”
While Paul’s libertarian positions on issues like criminal justice reform may pique some interest from African-Americans, Paul’s small-government philosophy may clash with other interests black voters generally back, including large federally funded programs.
Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University and an expert on minority voters and mobilization, said it’s unlikely that Paul will see any short-term impact in his efforts to broaden the GOP base but that he could eventually have an effect.
“I think the long-term impact will be real but incremental and it’s going to involve a lot more than what’s happened so far,” she said.
She pointed to other major voter demographic shifts, like when Southern whites switched from being Democrat to Republican, that took place over decades.
“These realignments take time, and they take more time than a news cycle or an election cycle,” she said. “If Republicans are serious about this process of making it more diverse, they should understand that it’s going to come in baby steps.”