As a politician who's neither from Detroit, nor remotely associated with it, nor even attached to the political party that people in Detroit tend to support, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul seems like an unlikely suspect to volunteer his thoughts on how to save the bankrupt city (he also opposed the auto bailout that rescued at least some jobs in town).
But there he was on Friday, opening up a Republican "African American Engagement Office" in the Motor City, delivering a speech to the Detroit Economic Club, and trying to convince residents of how his ideas could help them "bail themselves out."
Paul's case seems like a long shot in a city that gave 97 percent of its vote to Barack Obama in 2012. Detroit's population also has the highest share of blacks of any major city in the U.S., and that's a demographic that Obama won nationwide by a stunning 95 percent. But by foraying deep into a Democratic, majority-minority city, Paul has at least drawn attention to the rocky (often nonexistent) relationship between the Republican Party and urban voters more broadly. As he put it in a call with reporters on Thursday:
"You look at the red-blue map of the United States, almost all the rural small cities are red, and almost all the big cities are blue. I think Republicans as a party, myself included, need to do more in the cities, and I think instead of saying, hey, the free market floats all boats, we need to specifically come in with plans for areas."
His blunt assessment of his party's recent approach to urban voters is a start: "We lose all the big cities," he lamented in his speech Friday, awkwardly adding that the GOP needs voters with "tattoos, ponytails, and earrings."
Much more has been made of the demographic hurdle Republicans face nationally if they don't do a better job courting Hispanics. The same is true, however, of big cities (however you describe the people who live there).
On some issues, Paul – a libertarian-leaning Republican – is sincerely speaking to the concerns of urban voters. He's vocal about the damage of the war on drugs, and the disproportionate impact that over-incarceration has on minority communities. But the crux of his pitch is an economic one. He plans to introduce a bill in the Senate on Monday that would create "Economic Freedom Zones” in distressed places like Detroit. Here is CNN's description of the plan:
In places where the unemployment level is at or greater than 1.5% of the national rate, the Senator wants to create taxes "so low that essentially you're able to bail yourselves out."
The bill would reduce income taxes to 5% and eliminate capital gains taxes. The payroll tax would also go down for both the employee and the employer, he said.
The key to the bill, however, is that only businesses that are seeing success would enjoy the benefits.
Paul says he wants to support growing businesses, not bail out failing ones. A Republican proposal to explicitly invest in cities would be a novel one these days, but his message may not resonate with struggling families who need more than a tax break on the little income they already have.
Paul also spoke on the eve of his trip to Detroit about the need for Republicans to "find out what's going on" in urban communities, and then come up with solutions for them. That's not exactly what he's done here, turning up for the engagement while carrying the answers at the same time. At least it will be interesting to watch what happens next. (You can also watch some of Paul's speech here).
Top image: Jason Reed/Reuters