Rand Paul's Crazy Dream of a Libertarian-Democratic Alliance on Civil Rights Is Actually Happening

In crime bills, signs of that rarest Washington unicorn: bipartisanship.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., shakes hands with Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., after the news conference to unveil the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act (FAIR Act), legislation to 'protect the rights of property owners and restore the Fifth Amendment's role in civil forfeiture proceedings' on Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015.

Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

On the morning before attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch would face Congress, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul re-introduced a bill that would tie her hands. Paul and a crew of congressmen—Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, Michigan Representative Tim Walberg—had resurrected the Fifth Amendment Integrity Act. If passed, it would restrict the government’s ability, from the Department of Justice on down to local cops, to seize property from criminal suspects.

“We’ve had protests across our country, and people think it’s about one or two instances,” Paul said from the rostrum. “No. It’s one thing after another. Let’s say you’ve got a poor family in a neighborhood in a big city, and grandmother owns the house. The 15-year old son is selling marijuana. They catch him. They take the house! The house was the only stabilizing thing in a family that was having trouble.”

Ellison, a black Democrat who was the first Muslim elected to Congress, stood by Paul as he summoned the ghosts of the Civil Rights movement.

“Martin Luther King talked about there being two Americas, where one America was treated in a just fashion and one wasn’t,” Paul said. “At one point it was based on color, and it was awful. Now it’s not so much based on color on purpose, but there is an inadvertent sense to the war on drugs that has allowed people of color to be caught up in this.”

This was Rand Paul, national figure and likely presidential candidate, and Democrats needed him. And this was still somewhat new to them. Paul had begun his Senate career in 2011 by slicing up red meat, introducing a doomed bill to ban abortions and a budget proposal that zeroed out foreign aid. He’d started the second Obama administration with a campaign of outreach to black students and black leaders, and a vocal campaign to restore the voting rights of felons. Democrats could say this and the media shrugged; Rand Paul said it, and the notebooks came out.

As 2014 dragged on, the violent news cycles gave Paul new chances to find a libertarian-liberal consensus. He took those chances. After the shootings of black teens by police officers, Paul wrote that it was “impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.” He’d introduced some bills to rectify that. The Democratic Senate had slept on them. So here he was, in 2015, starting what most people see as a nascent presidential campaign with an effort to erase harsh laws—to the joy of Democrats who have no power to pass any bills on their own.

“I’m glad when my colleagues start waving around the Constitution,” said Ellison. “I think the constitution is offended by civil forfeiture.”

Last year, Paul’s bills were written—and introduced with Democrats—at a staggered pace. This year, the senator expected “to get all those bills introduced in the next few weeks.” They include a bill that would give judges more flexibility in sentencing (with Pat Leahy), a bill that would allow felons to more easily restore their voting rights (with Harry Reid), and a bill that would reduce sentencing disparities in drug crimes (with Cory Booker).

“The reason why we introduced civil asset forfeiture first is because there is great momentum behind this bill with the recent move by the administration to limit the asset seizure program,” said Paul. “This bill has a good chance of being passed into law this Congress.”

That idea actually has the backing of the new Judiciary chairman, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley. “I’m at least willing to have debate within our committee on sentencing reform,” he said in an interview during last week’s Iowa Freedom Summit. “I’ve expressed in the committee, maybe even on the floor, concern about inequitable sentencing. White-collar crime has been treated less harshly than blue-collar crime, and it seems to me there’s an opportunity maybe to take care of that inequity.”

Grassley arrived in Washington at the height of the GOP’s law-and-order push; he was in the Senate when tougher and tougher crime bills sailed right through. He’d changed with the times—not as much as Paul might like, but enough to listen. He’d signed on with letters to the DOJ arguing for a review of the forfeiture policies. If he could be sold on reform bills, then Paul could actually pass some reform bills.

The events of summer of 2014 were a complicated passage for Paul’s ambitions. After the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the protests they engendered, Paul argued, in August, for an end to the “militarization” of police departments. Predictably, the defenders of the program rose up. They lobbied against the idea in Congress, throttling the bill while Democrats still controlled the Senate. And they benefited in a more subtle way after riots followed the grand jury’s non-decision in Ferguson, and after two police officers were killed in New York.

The law-and-order tendency in the GOP was born again, story by story. Conservatives cheered on police unions when they turned their backs on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio at the slain officers’ funerals. National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry spoke for plenty of conservatives when he pronounced the “hands up, don’t shoot” reaction to Ferguson a “fraud,” enabled by bad reporting and jittery politicians.

“I think these kind of measures should stand and fall on their merits outside of the Ferguson controversy,” Lowry wrote in an e-mail, “although it would be nice if Senator Paul admitted that he unwisely joined the absurd rush-to-judgment in the Michael Brown case.”

The media drive for Paul’s bills had lost its hook. But in interviews, Paul’s allies insisted that the bills could still pass. That had something to do with the influence, and the stardom, of the senators pushing the bills instead of making ad hoc announcements when the news cycle synced up with the policy. That started with Paul. “Criminal justice reform was never about police behavior, but about politicians writing bad laws,” Paul argued.

“Most Americans can draw a very sharp distinction between controlling crime and being stupid,” said Newt Gingrich, after speaking at an event on Capitol Hill for Booker’s bill. “I have not detected any pushback based on New York. You can be very pro-police, yet most of the police agree that the way to stabilize these communities by distinguishing between violent crime and non-violent crime, and getting these people reintegrated into their communities, is essential.”

Plus, the Republicans had won the midterms. None of the candidates Paul stumped for had come out for his crime bills, but the party was looking at a post-Obama 2016 election, and at ways to reach the voters whom they needed in general elections. Non-white voters were interested in the sentencing reform bills. This wasn’t eat-your-vegetables bipartisanship—“fixing” the debt, tax reform—that appealed to no real constituency. This was something that appealed to traditional Democrats but engendered less anger from the right than immigration reform. And it drew crowds: Gingrich had spoken up for Booker’s bill at a packed panel, co-starring his former Crossfire star Van Jones, with staffers and reporters spilling out of the doors of a Senate meeting room.

Crowds could be fickle, too. On Tuesday, as Paul reintroduced the forfeiture bill, he faced only half a dozen reporters in a camera-equipped room that could handle 50. A reporter from a tax policy trade publication asked if the bill would touch the IRS. After Michigan Republican Representative Tim Walberg confirmed that it would, the presser ended. Paul just stuck around, with a few reporters in obvious earshot, to talk strategy with Ellison.

“On the disparity thing,” said Paul, “we have another bill that takes it one to one on crack/cocaine.”

“One to one!” said Ellison, slamming a fist into an open palm.

“Another thing this bill does is it takes minor drug-related felonies and it makes them misdemeanors,” Paul continued. “And so one of the problems we have is that once you have a felony, you lose your right to vote, and also your ability to be employable is limited once you’re a felon.”

“You know I know,” said Ellison.

“If we take all these crimes and make them misdemeanors, it would go a long way,” said Paul. “I think you’ll like some of the stuff we’ve done.”

“I’ve got the [Congressional Black Caucus], the Progressive Caucus—I’ll cover our side of the field,” said Ellison.

“I think there are people on our side who are sort of libertarian-leaning that you can get as well,” said Paul. “[Idaho Representative] Raul Labrador is good on this. [Kentucky Representative] Thomas Massie, we can get on this. [Michigan Representative] Justin Amash.”

“Mandatory minimums, kill it,” said Ellison. “It’s never been right.”

“The National Association of Defense Lawyers have supported a lot of what we’re doing,” said Paul, gathering his staff to head back to the Senate. “You know, going back to the protests in Ferguson, in Washington—people are mad.”