‘Tea party’ candidate faces civil rights controversy

Less than 48 hours after tasting the thrill of victory, Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul on Thursday felt the burn of the national spotlight.

The self-described “tea party” candidate who won the Republican primary Tuesday created a dust-up by suggesting that he does not favor portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans With Disabilities Act, two seminal pieces of civil rights legislation. Criticism over his comments prompted Paul to issue a statement Thursday saying: “I unequivocally state that I will not support any efforts to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

“Let me be clear: 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,” the statement said. “As I have said in previous statements, sections of the Civil Rights Act were debated on constitutional grounds when the legislation was passed. Those issues have been settled by federal courts in the intervening years.”

In two separate interviews Wednesday, Paul seemed to suggest that he did not favor the way the courts settled those issues. He said he did not think the federal government should intervene to force private businesses to desegregate or accommodate the needs of the disabled.

Paul, the son of libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), likened forced desegregation of lunch counters to the government forcing a business to allow patrons to carry guns.

“Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant? These are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion,” Paul told host Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.

On National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” Paul discussed accommodations for people with disabilities.

“I think a lot of things could be handled locally,” Paul said. “I think if you have a two-story office and you hire someone who’s handicapped, it might be reasonable to let him have an office on the first floor rather than the government saying you have to have a $100,000 elevator. And I think when you get to the solutions like that, the more local the better, and the more common sense the decisions are, rather than having a federal government make those decisions.”

The discussion could affect the Senate race in Kentucky, where a history of racial violence led to forced desegregation. Paul’s statements threaten to alienate many of the black voters whom the Republican Party has spent decades trying to attract.

The issue also highlights what is sure to be the Democrats’ chief line of attack on Paul: That some of his views are far out of the mainstream.

Paul’s Senate opponent, Democrat Jack Conway, said Paul was “promoting a narrow and rigid ideology and has repeatedly rejected a fundamental provision of the Civil Rights Act.”

“No matter how he tries to spin to the contrary, the fact is that Paul’s ideology has dangerous consequences for working families, veterans, students, the disabled, and those without a voice in the halls of power,” Conway said in a statement.