Rand Paul and Hemp Blazers: My Weekend in Vegas
Rand Paul is at the lobby bar in the Encore Hotel in Las Vegas, talking to a small group of local pastors. The senator is tired and cranky. He spent the last week traveling from Washington, D.C. to Manchester, to Phoenix and landed here in Nevada just a few hours ago. He’s practically yawning his way through the conversation. Flanked on either side by the divine representatives of Sin City, he slouches into the back of a booth, and tosses a handful of bar nuts into his mouth.
No amount of jet lag could have convinced Paul to cancel this trip.
He has been visibly engaging in a pre-campaign campaign for the better part of the last year, but in recent weeks, a sense of Paul-fatigue has taken hold, and he has been eclipsed by more mainstream Republicans like Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and Chris Christie, making Friday's Nevada trip more important than ever.
Nevada is an early caucus state that is scheduled to host a Republican debate in December—and is increasingly important to presidential politics, and the Kentucky senator already has strong support here. Nevada, with its libertarian streak—legalized prostitution, legalized gambling, and the setting for the citizen v. government showdown starring cattle rancher Cliven Bundy—is a place where Paul could do well during the primary, but it’s also the place where the ghosts of his father and his father’s fringe ideology may haunt him.
Paul has said his popularity is due to the fact that Nevada is a "leave me alone" state, and his “libertarian-ish” worldview aligns well with such a sentiment. But anyone with the last name "Paul" and a subtle folksy twang probably would be welcomed with open arms by a certain segment of the state's Republicans, which makes for a rather awkward situation as Paul attempts to distance himself from his father.
In 2008, a mass of fans of former Congressman and two-time presidential candidate Ron Paul descended on the state GOP convention and successfully forced the establishment Republican powers that be to change the way delegates were selected, to make the process fairer to them.
Stunned party leaders responded by prematurely shutting down the convention, batting Ron Paul supporters back into their place—far away from the establishment. Undeterred, Paul’s supporters spent the next four years quietly organizing around the state and by 2012, with the help of Paul’s campaign manager Carl Bunce and the endorsement of some of the working girls at the Bunny Ranch, Ron Paul won 22 of Nevada's 25 delegates.
After a year spent restraining his libertarian impulses and trying to broaden his appeal, the younger Paul now finds it necessary to woo his father's rabid fans if he wants to be competitive in the caucuses here, but the problem with inheriting support from the elder Paul is that dad is unrestrained: Directly ahead of his son's Nevada visit, his website published a column that suggested the Charlie Hebdo terror attack might be a "false flag operation."
Rand Paul shakes off the last of the pastors, and sits down at my table. Paul, who wears hearing aids, seems exhausted and slightly annoyed by our noisy location beneath one of the bar's speakers, but he attempts a joke anyway: "I haven't had a chance to gamble away any money yet, but I'm hoping I will at some point." We both laugh, even though it’s not funny.
Things very quickly take a turn.
I mention how important Nevada has been in the past for Paul's family, and he becomes visibly uncomfortable.
He rolls his eyes. "There's some sort of sense of excitement, I guess," he says, and then he trails off. "A lot of flashbulbs, I guess, and a lot of media. A lot of people are interested in the issues and ideas…."
Large crowds followed Paul when he traveled, via a white SUV, from McCarran Airport to the Peppermill Restaurant on the Vegas strip. In addition to his usual retinue of staff members—Eleanor May, Doug Stafford—there was a new member of the team: a white-haired woman popularly known on the internet as Libertarian Girl.
Libertarian Girl personifies the tension between Paul’s electoral need to appeal to his father’s rabid supporters, but his politically-savvy inclination to keep them at arm’s length.
Libertarian Girl, Marianne Copenhaver, is a 27-year-old "political activist, graphic designer, digital strategist, and crazy bird lady," according to her Facebook page (which boasts close to 200,000 'likes') from Ohio.
"I started supporting Rand after I found out about Ron," she told me. "I did some research, and I found that Rand's views were very palatable and they gave me hope that even though Ron obviously is not going to be in Congress forever, there were other people like him…."
Copenhaver has written extensively about how the elder Paul sparked her interest in politics. In 2013, in an article titled, "How I Broke Through Language Boundaries and Became a Libertarian," she wrote: "Ron Paul broke through my linguistic boundary and cured my political apathy...It wasn't until I heard Ron Paul speak that I understood there was an enormous world of beautiful and brilliant minds where I could feel included."
How, exactly, Copenhaver came to work for Paul is not completely clear. Copenhaver told me that Stafford, a senior Paul aide who previously worked for Ron Paul, contacted her about writing and blogging for the campaign. Stafford says at different points they both contacted one another: "Marianne contacted me via Facebook over a year ago and asked if she could help. A few months later we were putting together a group of volunteer bloggers and I asked for her help." She has been doing contract work, according to Stafford, for "about a month or so now."
Copenhaver calls herself an anarcho-capitalist—meaning she wants to do away with government completely and replace it with private companies—but says she's too realistic to think it could ever happen in her lifetime. Likewise, while Copenhaver's tone turns almost musical when she discusses Ron Paul, she seems to understand that his son has a far greater chance of being successful. "Ron is Ron," she told me. "He's not going to word things to reach everyone in a way that they can understand it. He's going to say what he wants to say and he's going to say it, and that's what I love about him. But what I also love about Rand is he will try to craft his message in a way that people understand it, so he doesn't come across as harsh or abrasive."
Inside the Peppermill, Copenhaver and the rest of the team—including Richard Bunce, the brother of former Ron Paul Nevada campaign manager Carl, follow Paul as he moves from table to table, chummily addressing patrons. “That looks good,” he says as he points to a man’s breakfast of eggs and toast.
In an effort to distract from Paul's least favorite subject, which he can't avoid in Nevada, his team seems to have attempted to manufacture a series of moments.
Near the electronic poker machines that line the restaurant's waiting area, Chuck Farley, an ardent Paul supporter, is beaming at all the excitement. Farley has a light brown beard, black-rimmed glasses, and a bright-yellow T-shirt that reads, "ILOVERANDPAUL.COM." Reporters crowd around him like he's a circus attraction.
"Go over there for a picture," Sergio Gor, Paul's communications director, tells me. I say no. I don't really need to talk to him, he bargains. "Just make it look like you're interviewing him."
Dannion Brinkley, a middle-aged man sitting at the diner counter, presents Paul with a plastic-wrapped navy-blue blazer. Brinkley—an author who purports to have nearly died several times and as a result, has psychic abilities—identifies himself as a hemp-evangelist and informs Paul that the navy blue jacket is, in fact, made of 100 percent hemp.
Paul removes his own jacket, which is too big and slightly out of date, and tries on Brinkley's creation, which he designed but did not produce. It fits perfectly. Almost too perfectly. Paul's staffers look on in amazement. Stafford laughs when I suggest it's strange that Brinkley could have just known what size to make the jacket.
Brinkley explains to me that it fits so well because he was in contact with three different members of Paul's staff, who measured the senator's blazers for him. Paul's present staff members claim they knew nothing of it, suggesting it could have been staffers in his state office, or one of the staffers who "deals with the hemp people."
"It fits him so well!" Brinkley exclaims, his face taking on an almost cherubic quality. "He's a little guy," he says, pushing his hands close together in front of his face to demonstrate.
Paul continues to walk through the restaurant, modeling the blazer. He smiles, “I’m not breaking any laws, am I?”