Presidential candidates spend a lot of time in ballrooms.
On Tuesday night, Rand Paul found himself in the depressingly glitzy confines of Martin’s West in Windsor Mill, Maryland, just outside Baltimore, for the Baltimore County GOP’s “Lincoln/Reagan Dinner,” where he served as the keynote speaker.
The venue, which has a martini for a logo and advertises its “Appetizer Selection; Bar-Bat Mitzvah; Breakfast Fare; Buffet Menu; Cocktail Party; Corporate Buffet; Luncheon; Dessert Selections; Deluxe Brunch,” is located next to a Hampton Inn & Suites. The audience was predominantly older and white. A man, wearing sunglasses indoors, sang a song called “American Strong,” whose lyrics bemoaned those who want to change the American flag.
In short, it was an odd choice of setting for Paul’s first trip to the Baltimore area since he fumbled his response to the April riots that engulfed the city after the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man, while in police custody.
“I came through the train on Baltimore last night,” he laughed to right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham as the riots raged on. “I’m glad the train didn’t stop.” While the Kentucky senator later claimed his comment was misinterpreted, he also expressed his belief that the violence in Baltimore was the result of “the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society.”
It was a departure for Paul, who had spent the previous months campaigning as a “different” kind of Republican—in particular, one who fervently advocated for criminal justice reform while much of the establishment GOP clung to the tough-on-crime policies of decades past. After the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Paul met with local leaders and wrote a column for Time. “Anyone who thinks race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention,” he wrote then.
Ahead of Paul’s speech Tuesday, Christian Woehrle, his wife, and young daughter sat in front of plates of salad and chocolate cake amid a sea of empty tables in the ballroom. Woehrle, who sported a long goatee and a “Stand with Rand” T-shirt (most attendees wore suits), said he was not a member of the Baltimore County GOP and had driven up from Virginia for the event.
Woehrle told me he didn’t think Paul’s perceived Baltimore fumble was anything that would affect him long term, as he has consistently been the lone GOP candidate speaking out about criminal justice reform. Plus, Woehrle added, “The only people who showed up [in Baltimore] were Al Sharpton—and of course Martin O’Malley showed up.”
O’Malley, who served as governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore, and is currently challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, proved a common theme among Paul’s supporters.
While in line to have Paul’s latest book signed by the senator himself, Mike Smigiel, a former Republican delegate and current congressional candidate, told me he didn’t care so much about Paul’s response to the riots. “I was more interested in Martin O’Malley showing up to the scene of the crime,” he said. Smigiel, who handed me a pocket-sized Constitution and boasted that he was Ron Paul’s only Maryland delegate at the Republican convention in 2012, explained that he believed O’Malley’s policies were at the root of the riots. (Smigiel wrote a little-noticed Baltimore Sun Op-Ed on the topic.)
Paul’s decision not to make an appearance in Baltimore during the riots, Smigiel said, was a good thing: “If every politician comes running here every time there’s an event, then you’re politicizing it.”
Not long after someone broke a glass near where Paul was sitting at the front of the room, he took to the stage to deliver a wide-ranging, nearly 30-minute speech that touched on criminal justice reform but did not tackle the issue with the full force of Ferguson-era Paul.
“Most of our police are good,” Paul said while discussing government spying and the need for warrants. “I know we have some bad things that happen, but don’t forget 98 percent are good people.” That, Paul added, doesn’t excuse the 2 percent that are not good, but it is still important to remember.
At another point, he said, “You can be a minority because of the color of your skin, but you can also be a minority because of the shade of your ideology.”
It wasn’t until Paul got to the topic of Kalief Browder, a 22-year-old man who had been imprisoned at Rikers for three years without trial, that his voice grew impassioned. Paul said he’d been speaking of Browder, who last week committed suicide, for “a year and a half, two years now,” though he’s actually only been aware of the case since October, when The New Yorker reported extensively on it.
“He was arrested, accused of a crime, and put in Rikers Island for three years without a trial,” Paul said, audibly exasperated. “He spent two of those years in solitary confinement, he was beaten to a pulp by a gang in prison, without ever being convicted of a crime…he wasn’t even convicted!”
“Imagine how his classmates feel about American justice, how his parents feel,” Paul said. He added that you couldn’t judge those who felt frustrated with the system until you’d walked in their shoes.
And with that came a small glimpse of the Rand Paul who can inspire and bridge gaps between the factions of the conservative movement.
This story has been updated to clarify that Mike Smigiel is a former, not current, Republican delegate.